Can Hypnosis Help Chronic Pain Patients Find Relief?

By Kelly Burch 05/22/19

A new review examined whether hypnotic intervention could provide "meaningful" pain relief.

pain patient under hypnosis in a therapist's office

Undergoing hypnosis could significantly reduce pain that people experience, but it’s too early to tell whether this could be used to treat chronic or acute pain, experts say. 

A review recently published in the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews found that study participants who were exposed to painful stimuli like heat or cold were able to reduce the amount of pain they experienced by 29-42% by using methods of hypnosis. 

“These findings suggest that hypnotic intervention can deliver meaningful pain relief for most people and therefore may be an effective and safe alternative to pharmaceutical intervention,” study authors wrote. Yet, they warned, “High quality clinical data is, however, needed to establish generalisability in chronic pain populations.”

Lead study author Trevor Thompson, a psychologist based at the University of Greenwich, England, noted that "experimental pain"—that created by heat, cold or other stimuli in a lab—is not a direct comparison to real-life pain from injury or chronic pain, or "clinical pain." 

"It is important, of course, to acknowledge that clinical pain isn't quite the same thing as experimentally induced pain," he told Medical Express. That’s because injuries and ongoing pain "involve more negative emotional states, less sense of control over pain, and adverse effects on quality of life,” he said. 

Still, the fact that hypnosis provided such significant relief to people who were being hurt was significant. 

"If hypnosis is effective at reducing experimental pain, there's reason to be optimistic it would have the same effect on clinical pain," he said.

Mark Jensen, professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and editor of the Journal of Pain, said that previous research has indicated that hypnosis techniques can reduce the amount of pain that patients experience. How effective it is depends on the root cause of the pain, he said. He added that it’s important that people be informed consumers, and use hypnosis as one of many strategies for managing their pain. 

"Anyone can hang out a shingle and call themselves a 'hypnotist,'" he said.

Jensen said that hypnosis uses a combination of relaxation and imagery to tap into the body’s natural pain-relief systems. Other research has indicated that hypnotherapy techniques change the body’s perception of pain. It’s often much more subtle than many people think, he added, and it’s certainly not a way to immediately remove all pain. 

"It's not all-powerful magic that will eliminate pain," he said. "It's not the hocus-pocus you see on TV."

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.