By David Kiefer, MD
Stress and pain are intimately related. When being in pain causes stress or being stressed worsens pain, psychological therapies — including hypnosis, meditation, and relaxation — may help break the cycle.
For pain therapists, these treatments, which focus on the relationship between the mind and body, are considered mainstream. For other health professionals, they may be considered alternative or complementary therapies. Regardless of how they are labeled, there is evidence that for many people they work.
If you’re considering trying one of these approaches to pain relief, here’s what you need to know.
For many, hypnosis brings to mind a parlor game or nightclub act, where a man with a swinging watch gets volunteers to walk like a chicken or bark like a dog. But clinical, or medical, hypnosis is more than fun and games. It is an altered state of awareness used by licensed therapists to treat psychological or physical problems.
During hypnosis, the conscious part of the brain is temporarily tuned out as the person focuses on relaxation and lets go of distracting thoughts. The American Society of Clinical Hypnotists likens hypnosis to using a magnifying glass to focus the rays of the sun and make them more powerful. When our minds are concentrated and focused, we are able to use them more powerfully. When hypnotized, a person may experience physiologic changes, such as a slowing of the pulse and respiration, and an increase in alpha brain waves. The person may also become more open to specific suggestions and goals, such as reducing pain. In the post-suggestion phase, the therapist reinforces continued use of the new behavior.
Benefits of Hypnosis
Research has shown medical hypnosis to be helpful for 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. An analysis of 18 studies by researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York revealed moderate to large pain-relieving effects from hypnosis, supporting the effectiveness of hypnotic techniques for pain management.
If you want to try hypnosis, you can expect to see a practitioner by yourself for a course of 1-hour or half-hour treatments, although some practitioners may start with a longer initial consultation and follow up with 10 to 15-minute appointments. Your therapist can give you a post-hypnotic suggestion that will enable you to induce self-hypnosis after the treatment course is completed.
Alternatively, audio recordings exist that walk the listener through the steps necessary to achieve the benefits from hypnosis.
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