Home Use Biofeedback Equipment
Troy Todd, Ph.D., BCN
The home-use biofeedback devices are usually not as sophisticated or flexible as those in a provider’s office, but usually this is not necessary if you select the right device for your goals. There are two classifications of biofeedback: peripheral (usually just referred to as “biofeedback”) and neuro-feedback. Most of the home use biofeedback equipment is peripheral. Most will focus on only regulating one aspect of the body. It is important to use the right kind of feedback to accurately address the desired improvement. It would be best to work with a biofeedback provider to help you find the right type of device and to teach you how to use it most effectively.
There are not a wide variety of manufacturers of biofeedback equipment, like we have come to expect with cars or computers. The devices I have used and discuss here are good and well used in the field.
Heart Rate/Respiration coherence is the focus of the StressEraser ($170) and EmWave ($170). I find the StressEraser has a more user friendly interface than the EmWave and it seems the algorithm for calculating the coherence in the StressEraser is more sound. Respir@te ($300) focuses on Respiration training and is marketed for reducing blood pressure. The Respir@te is a nice machine with voice prompts and relaxing music, but I find the chest strap, headphones and larger “box” of the device (with its “C” size batteries) awkward to use (I understand the latest version has a smaller box). The GSR ($75) stands for Galvanic Skin Response and helps to regulate hand sweating, a common sign of autonomic over-arousal (anxiety). The GSR is a very simple and very portable device providing a varying pitch audio feedback that is very understandable. I am not a big fan of GSR feedback because GSR is modulated very slowly by the body, therefore there is a significant delay between the state of the mind and the response of the skin, making it difficult to self-regulate with this form of feedback alone. The MyoTrac ($500) is a powerful single-channel EMG (muscle tension) unit, good for reducing tension headaches, lower back pain, shoulder tension, and other muscle related problems. It is a solid machine, but a little difficult to use for the non-biofeedback provider, but provides a good auditory feedback and a “light bar” visual feedback. There were other EMG systems that were more intuitive, but they are no longer available. There are some new biofeedback devices designed to work with your smartphone. The Heartmath device ($99) is made by the same company as the EmWave and works on the same principle, guiding your breathing to better HR/RESP coherence. There is also a GSR unit ($99) that plugs into a smart phone. All of these devices can be purchased from Biomedical Instruments (“BMI” bio-medical.com) and a few other biofeedback vendors, as well as the manufacturers.
There are just a few neurofeedback type devices out there. The most popular, and, depending on how you respond to it, probably the most effective is the Alpha-Stim ($800-$1,200, alpha-stim.com). It works by sending a TINY electric pulse across your skull (through ear lobe clips) that encourages your brain to produce more Alpha waves, which is the frequency your brain “idles” in, the experience being a “focused calm” feeling that is typical in relaxed, unstressed people. The effect is usually immediate, and may last for some time after. Those that do not respond well will quite rapidly feel agitated. The company has a money-back return policy and offers military discounts. The $1,200 unit also provides stimulation that can be used to manage pain (I have not evaluated this feature). There is a newer company offering small neurofeedback devices (pocket-neurobics.com) that are about $600 for the unit. The sensors and software are an additional cost. They appear to be marketing to neurofeedback providers as a way to expand their ability to treat multiple people, or, treat people remotely (provider based neurofeedback systems cost from $3,000-$20,000). However, you could likely purchase one of these devices yourself, but you should have a competent neurofeedback provider set it up for you. The final neurofeedback-like devices you would want to consider is a class of devices called Audio-Visual Entrainment (AVE). These devices used pulsed light and/or sound to “entrain” the brain to produce certain frequencies of neurological activity. It is the same concept as discussed with the Alpha-Stim, but can encourage a variety of states instead of just one. The DAVID devices ($350) have been around the longest and have a variety of programs that encourage your brain into various states (for greater problem solving ability, for example). They can be purchased from the manufacturer (mindalive.com) and other biofeedback vendors. Some people find they work very well, others find them moderately helpful, and others find them agitating. There are also similar products as apps available for smartphones. They are often listed as “binaural beats.” I would only use these after having a quantative electroencephalograph (qEEG) by a competent neuorfeedback provider before using any of the entrainment methods. The reason I recommend this is that the developers of these devices design them produce the entrainment frequencies based on what the typical brain is supposed to produce for the desired state, assuming the developer knows what they are doing. If your brain is not typical, or they developed them wrong, you could actually encourage an undesirable brain state.