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Biofeedback therapy is a method using a tool, like an electroencephalogram (EEG), to measure the body’s physical states, such as heart rate and brain waves. The person being measured will then use readings from these machines to control body functions that the body typically regulates automatically. Some of these include heart rate, skin temperature, blood pressure, and muscle tension. During therapy sessions, the therapist will guide the person being measured through a series of mental and physical exercises, which help control these body processes. The person can get immediate feedback on the success of these exercises, including a beep or flashing light when their body has fully reached the desired change. Most often, people undergoing biofeedback therapy report success and personal changes after 12 sessions.
This form of therapy has been most often applied to stress-related conditions, such as high blood pressure, chronic headaches or other pain, and sleep problems. However, it is also increasingly being applied to treat people overcoming addictions. Biofeedback therapy can be especially useful for people experiencing withdrawal symptoms that are not physically dangerous, like anxiety, cravings, depression, changes in blood pressure, and fatigue. Some people report having greater confidence in their ability to go through treatment for their addiction, once they feel they have control over their bodies.
Currently, the primary tool used to treat substance abuse or addiction is EEG biofeedback therapy. Scholarly research on the subject is limited, because this form of therapy is rarely employed on its own. Instead, it tends to be combined with other support group-style therapies or individual therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Therefore, little is known about the potential effectiveness of biofeedback therapy on its own to treat substance use disorders. However, addiction changes brain structure, and EEG biofeedback can make those changes more apparent in an effort to help the person change back.
Although there is increasing evidence that biofeedback can be an effective therapy in addiction treatment, it has, so far, only been studied as one tool in a larger tool belt for treatment. Very few insurance companies will cover the cost of biofeedback alone, as it is still considered an experimental treatment for addiction.
In a PubMed article, “Neurofeedback Training for Opiate Addiction,” researchers noted that their own study may be flawed due to patients’ expectations that a new therapy would improve their outcomes. This could have motivated patients to work harder at their own treatment, and the specific therapy used was not relevant to the outcome. A different op-ed piece in Psychology Today suggested that the placebo effect could be inducing a sense of wellbeing and accomplishment in anyone using biofeedback therapy, including for other mental health conditions. Without studies involving placebo therapies, biofeedback cannot be recommended as the primary form of addiction treatment or the only form of addiction treatment.
However, people who are undergoing a full treatment regimen, which includes help from medical professionals, detox, individual therapy, support groups, and potentially maintenance medications when necessary, seem to do well when biofeedback is added to treatment. Groups who added biofeedback to their treatment showed greater retention in treatment programs and greater success maintaining abstinence after leaving rehabilitation. Since these are two of the primary goals of addiction treatment, adding biofeedback to a treatment regimen could be very beneficial for many people.