DEAR DOCTOR K: I am in near-constant pain because of arthritis. My doctor suggested that I try hypnotherapy. My first reaction was that it sounds like hokum, but now I’m wondering if it could help. What do you think?
DEAR READER: Hypnotherapy may in fact help with pain management. These days it is used to treat many mental and physical health problems. I spoke to my colleague Dr. Max Shapiro, a psychologist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. He
explained that hypnotherapy is most effective in treating problems that require stronger control over the body’s responses. Pain is a good example; insomnia is another.
Hypnotherapy turns your attention inward. A hypnotherapist helps you enter a trancelike state. In that state, your attention is highly focused, so you’re more responsive to suggestions. With the guidance of a hypnotherapist, you can start to control or alter your thoughts, feelings and physical state. A hypnotic trance empowers you to activate neural circuits that are otherwise inactive. When activated, this circuitry can reduce pain, among other things.
Let’s consider insomnia. Hypnosis can be very effective in blocking out the distracting chatter that interferes with sleep. A hypnotherapist will first teach a patient how to go into a trance. Once in a trance, the patient will focus on his or her own past experience of falling asleep easily, effortlessly and comfortably. The patient will then be taught to practice going into a trance at bedtime and re-creating those feelings.
About half of people who use hypnotherapy for insomnia see improvement after a few sessions. Others require several more sessions. Only about one in 10 people won’t find it useful.
The success rate for hypnotherapy in treating pain is much more complicated. That may be because the source and nature of pain can vary so widely. Some people experience quick and long-lasting relief; others find it more challenging.
Hypnotherapy may be much more effective for some people than for others. In part, a successful outcome depends on how committed you are. In order for hypnotherapy to work, you will need to put the lessons learned at each session into practice at home. If you need an outside voice to help you focus inward, recordings may help to get you into a trance state.
Hypnotherapy is typically a complementary therapy. That means it should be part of a broader treatment plan that may include more traditional pain relief techniques and medications, if needed.
Like most doctors, I was skeptical that hypnosis really could work to help relieve suffering. It seemed like magic, and I don’t believe in magic. But now we know that the brain experiences symptoms — like pain — and that the brain has its own natural ways of relieving those symptoms. However, those “natural” ways often lie dormant and need to be activated. Hypnosis is a way of activating the brain’s ability to quiet bothersome symptoms.
A physician colleague of mine tried hypnosis after no traditional treatments were able to adequately relieve his pain. The treatment was so successful that he now uses hypnosis in his practice. There’s nothing like getting your own suffering relieved to make a believer out of you.