Utilizing Biofeedback

James Metz, MD
Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: September 11, 2013

Emotional and physical stresses can be a heavy burden for the patient with cancer. The diagnosis and treatment of cancer can make some patients feel as though they have lost control of their lives. Some patients require to medications to help them deal with stress and anxiety. Others find that attending support group sessions or meeting with a professional therapist helps them cope. Some patients use an approach called biofeedback, which requires active participation and helps some patients feel they have gained some control back in their lives.

Biofeedback manipulates the body's physiologic responses that are normally controlled by the autonomic nervous system. A biofeedback therapist, of which there are over 10,000 in the United States, can teach a patient how to control many of the body's involuntary functions. Some patients learn to control their heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and emotions.

The therapist will place monitoring electrodes on the body or scalp. The electrodes will then be connected to a computer or polygraph. This will emit a noise or signal indicating the intensity or level of the process to be controlled. The patient is then instructed to concentrate on trying to influence to signal. Specific mental exercises will be performed under the direction of the therapist. The patient will visualize certain images that affect the mood. The patient can eventually learn which mental exercises can change the signals. After a number of sessions (typically 8-10), the patient may be able to affect certain autonomic processes.

Biofeedback is a technique that can be useful in a wide variety of conditions. It is not used to cure cancer. The greatest benefit from biofeedback for the cancer patient is relaxation and reduction of stress. This can undoubtedly improve the quality of life for those who are successful. It allows the cancer patient to take an active role in their treatment. Biofeedback is noninvasive, inexpensive and safe.