Mind over matter is a phrase we’ve all heard. Typically it means our minds can overcome anything, even physical challenges, if we put it to the task. In this respect, hypnosis may be a helpful non-drug therapy to reduce pain in chronic pain conditions.
Origins of hypnosis
Hypnosis goes back to the biblical age, dating as early as 1500 BC. During ancient times, mystical practices including “dream temples” and “hypnos” – used by the Egyptians and Greeks – were often a part of the treatment of physical ailments. Over the centuries, hypnosis came and went in various forms and was even used as anesthesia until chloroform came into use in 1831.
By the 20th century, Dr Milton Erickson’s version of hypnosis became the accepted and widely used form in clinical psychotherapy. Hypnosis stressed the importance of the interactive therapeutic relationship and engagement of the patient, rather than a therapist issuing standardized instructions to a passive patient.
As Dr. Erickson was becoming known as the world’s leading hypnotherapist, reports describing hypnotic strategies for chronic pain management emerged. In the 1950s, the literature on hypnosis and biofeedback grew in tandem. The next few decades produced encouraging data about the stress response and its effects on an individual’s pain responses. Studies investigating the effectiveness of both tools in the treatment of chronic pelvic pain, headaches, lower back pain and other pain conditions showed promise.
What is hypnosis?
By definition, hypnosis is a set of techniques designed to enhance concentration, minimize outside distractions and heighten responsiveness to suggestions in order to alter one’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors or physiological state. It’s not a treatment but an adjuvant therapy that can facilitate other types of treatments.
Hypnosis involves learning how to use your mind and thoughts to manage emotional distress, pain and behaviors like smoking over overeating.
For pain therapists, hypnosis focuses on the relationship between the mind and body and is considered mainstream. For health professionals in other fields, they may be considered alternative or complementary therapies. Clinical, or medical hypnosis is an altered state of awareness used by licensed therapists to treat psychological or physical problems.
How does hypnosis work?
During hypnosis, the conscious part of the brain is temporarily tuned out as a participant focuses on relaxing and letting go of distracting thoughts. By making his/her mind more concentrated and focused, a participant is able to use it more powerfully. A good analogy is that it’s like using a magnifying glass to focus the rays of the sun and make them more powerful.
Under hypnosis, a person may experience physiologic changes. It’s common for pulse and respirations to slow and alpha brain waves to increase. In this altered state, a person may become more open to specific suggestions and goals offered by the therapist, such as reducing pain. After this suggestion phase, the therapist or individual when self induced, reinforces continued use of the new behavior or mindset.
For everyone, the experience is a little different. Some people describe their experience as a “trance-like” state. Others may experience it as imagery or the soothing of body sensations. Most people describe hypnosis as pleasant, where they feel focused and absorbed in the experience. They tend to have an acute awareness, but also feel relaxed, comfortable and peaceful.
Common myths about hypnosis
Hypnosis can’t do everything. There are many myths, misconceptions and misinformation about it – possibly even more than about any other treatment for chronic pain. People have preconceived notions based on stage performers, television and movies and rumors – and these cultural references tend to embellish what it can do. Finally, medical hypnosis isn’t generally taught as part of the curriculum of most health care providers. Lack of knowledge of the subject area leads to “superstition”, even within the medical community.
Benefits for pain management
Chronic pain is a complex phenomenon impacted by emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and physiological responses. That’s why it’s so important that treatment approaches include assistance for all these issues. The good news is that research has shown hypnosis helps acute and chronic pain. In 1996, a panel of the National Institutes of Health found hypnosis to be effective in easing cancer pain. More recent studies have demonstrated its effectiveness for pain related to burns, cancer and rheumatoid arthritis and reduction of anxiety associated with surgery. In 2000, a meta-analysis, or a compilation of 18 studies on hypnosis, showed that 75% of clinical and experimental participants with varying types of pain obtained substantial pain relief – supporting the claims of the effectiveness of hypnosis for pain management.
Review of the literature indicates that hypnotic interventions for chronic pain results in significant reductions in perceived pain that, in some cases, may be maintained for several months. There is growing evidence and established research to suggest that hypnosis:
- Has a greater influence on the effects of pain rather than the sensation of pain
- May be more effective or at least equivalent to other treatments for acute and chronic pain
- Have the potential to save both money and time for patients and clinicians, if the patient responds to hypnosis
- May be able to provide analgesia, reduce stress, relieve anxiety, improve sleep, improve mood and reduce the need for opioids
- Can enhance the efficacy of other well-established treatments for pain
Getting started with hypnosis
Once a person has decided to try hypnosis, the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis offers insights into choosing the right provider. The Societies of Hypnosis provides of list of members in several accredited organizations. It’s important to make sure that whichever provider is chosen, the therapist is licensed and has the appropriate certifications.
In addition to meeting with a provider, people interested in the ongoing use of hypnosis may opt to be trained in self-hypnosis. Outside of the treatment setting, participants can learn to practice self-hypnosis or be given audio recordings of their therapy sessions to help with home practice.
Technology can also aid in approaching hypnosis from more of a DIY standpoint. There are several downloadable programs and mobile apps on the market that are designed to help the participant with self-hypnosis, including:
- Body Pain Management Hypnosis- a mobile app
- Pain Management Self Hypnosis – downloadable or CD
- Pain Relief Hypnosis – a mobile app
Does hypnosis work for pain relief? There is a great deal written about its use and a lot of research proving its efficacy. Although not quite mainstream yet, there does seem to be a growing acceptance that hypnosis as well as biofeedback and meditation can be powerful additions to any treatment program. I tried hypnosis a few times years ago with a trained therapist and found it helped show me what true relaxation meant. Until then I’d never experienced complete and utter peace, finally letting go of all the turmoil around me. That incredible release and drive to revisit it whenever I chose got me into researching self help techniques. While not a cure, they can’t help but be a wonderful aid even if it’s only to reduce the stressors that contribute to pain.