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What Is Biofeedback Therapy?

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.

Biofeedback Therapy Applied to Addiction Treatment

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.

Studies on the Effectiveness of Biofeedback Therapy

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.

  • In a PubMed article from 2008 that studied EEG biofeedback therapy on people going through addiction treatment, people who were alcohol-dependent registered different brain patterns than people without an alcohol use disorder and who had no relatives with alcohol use disorders. In one of the earliest biofeedback studies, noted in the PubMed article, researchers found that inducing a meditative state by focusing on sustaining a series of beeps from the EEG helped 21 people struggling with alcohol abuse to develop insight into their brain’s condition and change their attitudes toward their substance use. Subjects in later EEG biofeedback therapy studies reported, in a 13-month follow-up, more days abstinent and in treatment.
  • The article, “Neurofeedback in Treatment of Substance Abuse,” published in 2010, noted that people struggling with addiction to substances like alcohol may have found substance abuse to be a simple way of evening out specific brain wave patterns, where they would lack the ability to produce certain types of brain waves like a “normal” brain would. Using biofeedback therapy can help these individuals hear where their brain waves are reduced or abnormal, and receive direct feedback in the form of a flashing light or a beeping sound, so they can create change through therapeutic exercises.
  • A study published by the Applied Psychophysiology & Biofeedback Society cited studies dating to 2004 and 2005 that showed evidence that people overcoming substance abuse with the help of biofeedback remained in treatment for longer. About 77 percent of those in the study using biofeedback also maintained abstinence for one year after the study, compared to 44 percent of the control group. A cited study from 2006 found that 63 percent of people overcoming addiction using biofeedback therapy screened positive for intoxicants in their urine, compared to 83 percent of the control group.

Biofeedback Therapy’s Potential Future in Addiction Treatment

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.