The Value of Biofeedback: Perceived or Real?

A recent Cochrane summary about feedback and biofeedback for urinary incontinence has been published that supports patient perception of benefit for symptoms. The summary was first published on-line in July of 2011. 24 trials were included in this review, and the authors compared research of pelvic floor muscle training with studies that included feedback or biofeedback to augment the pelvic floor muscle training. Women who received biofeedback in their rehabilitation for urinary incontinence were less likely to report that they did not improve. Interestingly, compared to those who did not receive biofeedback, there was no significant difference in cure rates or in leakage episodes.

So why would a woman perceive that she has increased recovery of her symptoms simply through the addition of biofeedback to her rehabilitation program? The authors report that in the studies in which biofeedback was included, the subjects spent more time with the therapists. Is it this fact that leads to the increased rate of reported benefit? Speaking from professional experience, I utilized biofeedback consistently when I began working with patients who have urinary incontinence, and as I gained more skills, I used the biofeedback less. (Keep in mind that biofeedback is a global term accompanying any type of information, such as visual or auditory, and that in this article biofeedback refers to electromyographic (EMG) measurement of muscle activity.) As I resumed use of biofeedback, I was reminded of the value of having the patient really "see" the effects of their attempts at muscle activation. Perhaps the internal validation on the patient's part that he or she has a true impact on the machine via the body is quite powerful in itself.

We do know for a fact from the wide body of literature on the topic that urinary incontinence and the perceived interruption in function impacts quality of life ratings. Perhaps the patients who have an increased awareness of their own empowerment through muscular effort, home program practice, and therapist validation of patient effort with biofeedback training also affects the perceived impact of urinary incontinence. If a patient perceives increased benefit from therapy, does that perception then influence quailty of life?

An important take-home point from this research summary is this: the literature supports biofeedback as a tool that augmentspelvic floor muscle training. Biofeedback is not a tool that stands alone in rehabilitation; EMG training is utilized as a part of the process, following synthesis of information gained from the examination and evaluation of the patient. Some providers who refer for pelvic rehabiltation seem to think that biofeedback alone should be utilized, while other providers do not believe we should be using biofeedback with their patients. The needs of the specific patient should drive that decision making, and we as pelvic rehab providers must continually educate our providers about the various tools we have to treat urinary incontinence and other pelvic floor disorders.

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