Biofeedback – The Most Misunderstood Tool in Your Toolbox! By Tiffany Ellsworth Lee, MA, OTR BCB-PMD, PRPC
Rarely do practitioners see a topic so argued in pelvic rehabilitation as the use of surface EMG biofeedback. There are practitioners who boldly state they are for or against it on their social media accounts and clinic pages. Therapists are not questioning the use of biofeedback with neurologic or orthopedic applications, so why is it such a polarizing topic in pelvic health? The Pelvic Rehab Report sits down with faculty members Tiffany Lee and Jane Kaufman to discuss the tool they love. This month they published a Special Issue article in the Biofeedback Journal for the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. These two instructors have over 50 years of combined experience using biofeedback.(*)
Biofeedback provides visual and auditory feedback of muscle activity and is a non-invasive technique that allows patients to adjust muscle function, strength, and behaviors to improve pelvic floor function. The small electrical signal (EMG) provides information about an unconscious process and is presented visually on a computer screen, giving the patient immediate knowledge of muscle function, enabling the patient to learn how to alter the physiological process through verbal and visual cues. Jane Kaufman explains that “many patients gain knowledge and awareness of the pelvic floor muscle through tactile feedback, but the visual representation is what helps patients to hone in on body awareness and connect all the dots.” Muscle evaluation through digital exam offers strength but does not appropriately address electrical activity such as resting tone, ability to recruit or release tone in the muscle. The use of biofeedback addresses the specificity of muscle contraction and release offering an additional view of muscle function.
In a 2020 research study by Pilkar et al, clinicians reported sEMG barriers of use which included limited time and resources, clinically inapplicable sEMG system features, and the majority
of clinicians’ lack of training and/or confidence in utilization of sEMG technology. This research also noted technical challenges including the limited transfer of ever-evolving sEMG research into the off-the-shelf EMG systems, nonuser-friendly intuitive interfaces, and the need for a multidisciplinary approach for accurate handling and interpretation of data. (1)
To break this down into layman terms, one contraindication may be the price of a biofeedback unit. Tiffany Lee recommends using a 2-channel sEMG biofeedback hand-held unit with the software on a laptop or computer. In fact, to become board certified in pelvic floor biofeedback, the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance (BCIA) requires that you have a 2 channel EMG system with software. If you are using a hand-held one channel unit, the patient will have a difficult time seeing the muscle activity and the coordination between the abdominals and pelvic floor. This prevents meaningful treatment with this treatment tool as the patient cannot understand or interpret the LED bars on the machine (and often the therapist cannot understand either). In truth, the benefits outweigh the cost of the equipment and within a few treatments, you can cover the cost of the unit with the appropriate software to offer the proper visualization of muscle function.
Training is another issue, to start utilizing biofeedback in your clinical setting you need to have proper training in the modality. Most therapists have never been properly trained and if they take a course where the instructor doesn’t believe in the benefits of biofeedback, they feel negatively toward a tool they have never personally explored. Biofeedback relies on a skilled clinician to interact with the patient, give verbal cues, ensure that the proper muscles are contracting and relaxing, and must be used in conjunction with their other skills and knowledge.
Think of sEMG biofeedback as a tool in your toolbox. Tiffany shares, “in a study by Aysun Ozlu MD, et al., the authors conclude that biofeedback-assisted pelvic floor muscle training, in addition to a home exercise program, improves stress urinary incontinence rates more than home exercise program alone.” She continues, “Biofeedback is a powerful tool that can benefit your patient population and add to your skill-set.”(2)
Essentially, the acceptance of sEMG biofeedback in rehabilitation requires a unit (with software and sensors), training, and a multidisciplinary approach. Used correctly, it can positively impact patient performance and care in the clinic. Keep in mind sEMG is a non-invasive technique. It has already shown great promise in the field of neuro-rehabilitation and has been a widely-utilized tool to assess neuromuscular outcomes in research. Jane Kaufman concludes that “In short, biofeedback treatment/training using the proper instrumentation provides the precise information necessary to change behaviors.” This gives the patient the opportunity to recognize that ‘yes, they are in charge of this muscle and that they can achieve success in overpowering the symptoms.’ Biofeedback routinely allows the patient to understand that they are empowered to heal themselves with the tools you offer. They are in charge of their bodies and the outcome of treatment.
There is a long history of scientific evidence to support the use of sEMG biofeedback in the management of incontinence symptoms or pain symptoms. As a non-invasive, cost-effective, and powerful treatment modality, healthcare providers should consider this treatment tool when managing patients with pelvic floor dysfunction. Providers should be educated in the proper use of this valuable modality to gain the most out of the skills and knowledge that can be achieved through this intervention. For more information regarding courses and certification please visit www.BCIA.org.
Tiffany asked several PTs and OTs that have been to the board certification courses what they love about biofeedback. Here are a few answers:
- “Biofeedback empowers my patients and gives them the confidence that they are actually doing their exercises and/or relaxing correctly! I’ve had nothing but positive feedback from patients and it’s such a great tool to have as a pelvic floor therapist.”
- “My patients really love it, and they ask for it. I especially see the value for dyssynergia work on bearing down and learning eccentric abdominals and relaxed pelvic floor muscles. For men, I work on relaxing in standing and postures if they can’t empty their bladder. Ultimately the treatment needs to be meaningful to the patient. Biofeedback can complement other treatments. Their needs come before ours.”
- “After ONE session with a 5-year-old with constipation, mom called me in sheer excitement, screaming over the phone that he pooped on the potty!!! Something he has NEVER done before. Biofeedback helped him find and coordinate the potty muscles and tummy muscles and this made a huge difference for him!”
- “Becoming certified in biofeedback has only been positive for me. My patients feel that the initial sEMG evaluation sets the stage for my plan of care, and my reassessment at discharge is a tangible reflection of their progress. Not to mention its strength as a marketing tool.”
The Satellite Lab Course, Biofeedback for Pelvic Floor Muscle Dysfunction, scheduled for December 4-5, 2021 provides a safe space for clinicians to learn and practice this valuable tool. Registrants will gain knowledge about the benefits of using this modality in their clinical practice. Participants will learn how to administer biofeedback assessments, analyze and interpret sEMG signals, conduct treatment sessions, and role-playing patient instruction/education for each diagnosis presented during the many hands-on lab experiences.
Special Issue article in the Biofeedback Journal for the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback
* Pelvic Floor Biofeedback for the Treatment of Urinary Incontinence and Fecal Incontinence. Jane Kaufman, PT, MEd BDB-PMD; Kathryn Stanton, PT, DPT; Tiffany Ellsworth Lee, MA, OTR BCB-PMD, PRPC. Biofeedback (2021) 49 (3): 71–76. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-49.3.01.
- Use of Surface EMG in Clinical Rehabilitation of Individuals With SCI: Barriers and Future Considerations.Rakesh Pilkar, Kamyar Momeni, Arvind Ramanujam, Manikandan Ravi, Erica Garbarini, Gail F. Forrest. Front Neurol. 2020; 11: 578559. Published online 2020 Dec 18. doi: 10.3389/fneur.2020.578559 PMCID: PMC7780850
- Comparison of the efficacy of perineal and intravaginal biofeedback assisted pelvic floor muscle exercises in women with urodynamic stress urinary incontinence.Aysun Ozlu MD, Neemettin Yildiz MD, Ozer Oztekin MD. Neurourol Urodyn. 2017 Nov;36(8):2132-2141. Epub 2017 Mar 27. doi: 10.1002/nau.23257 PMID: 28345778.
- The basics of surface electromyography. Cram, G. S. Kasman. In E. Criswell (Ed.). Cram’s introduction to surface electromyography (2nd ed., pp. 3–7.) Jones and Bartlett. 2011