Biofeedback is a type of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It involves retraining the body to control certain responses.
When using biofeedback, sensors are placed on the body that sends information to a machine. The machine has a computer that shows how the body is responding in real-time. This allows the person undergoing biofeedback to recognize and adjust how their body is functioning.1-3
Biofeedback does not use any electric shocks or uncomfortable sensations. It is not painful. Biofeedback is typically done with the help of a physical therapist, experienced technician, or another trained expert.1
How does biofeedback work?
Biofeedback can monitor different functions, including:1-3
- Muscle contractions
- Sweat gland activity
- Heart rate
- Brain waves
By monitoring these functions, a person may be able to identify changes and better control their response. Many of these processes, such as breathing, were previously thought to be out of our control. This is called an autonomic response, such as the fight or flight response. This is the body’s natural reaction to stress or fear. It is also known as the sympathetic nervous system.1-3
Heart rate, sweat, breathing, and more are all part of our natural response to stress. These are also thought to be activated in certain medical conditions like such as:1-3
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Bowel or bladder issues
- Chronic pain
By helping the body recognize when it is being activated and teaching how to control response, symptoms may be reduced.1-3
Biofeedback and IBS
To date, there are no large, randomized controlled trials (RCTs) on biofeedback in IBS. RCTs are the gold standard when determining if a treatment works. However, there are several small studies showing that biofeedback may help reduce IBS symptoms, improve mental distress, and decrease pain.4
The goal of biofeedback in IBS is to gain better control over the enteric nervous system. This system controls our gut function. Like the sympathetic nervous system, it does this without our conscious control. Some of the specific biofeedback targets studied in IBS so far include:4,5
- Body temperature
- Skin sensations
- Heart rate
- Muscle contractions
While some studies have had positive results, much more research is needed to determine the true benefit, if any, of biofeedback on IBS symptoms. More research is also needed to determine the best combination of biofeedback with traditional drugs or other CAM options.
Biofeedback side effects
Biofeedback is a relatively safe method. This is why it may be easier than other options to combine into a treatment plan.
Biofeedback can be used for most people and alongside most drugs. It may also be a good option for people who cannot take certain drugs. This includes pregnant women or those who have drug allergies.
To use biofeedback, you must be able to follow the directions and respond to sensor input as needed.1-3
Things to know about biofeedback
People with certain heart or skin conditions may not be able to undergo all forms of biofeedback. Talk with your doctor about any other medical conditions you have and what drugs you take before starting biofeedback.1
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate all biofeedback devices. Your doctor can help determine the right device for you. If they are unfamiliar with biofeedback, they can point you in the direction of a trained professional. Biofeedback should not be started without the guidance of a doctor.1
At this time, there are no studies on the effects of biofeedback in children to treat IBS. If your child is interested in trying biofeedback, talk with a doctor.4