A track record of pain relief. Hypnosis was pioneered by nineteenth-century surgeons, such as James Esdiale and James Braid, and pain control was one of the earliest uses of hypnosis. Chemical anesthesia (ether, chloroform) came later. And hypnotic pain control techniques have gotten better over time.
- Hypnosis can help you:
- Control pain without painkillers.
- Reduce your dependence on painkillers like Vicodin (hydrocodone), Percocet (oxycodone), or even methadone.
- Reduce withdrawal and cravings.
- Increase the effectiveness of painkillers.
Does it Work?
Let’s look at some research findings:
“Randomized controlled studies with clinical populations indicate that hypnosis has a reliable and significant impact on acute procedural pain and chronic pain conditions.”
—Patterson and Jensen. “Hypnosis and clinical pain,” Psychological Bulletin of the American Psychological Association, 2003
“A pain protocol including hypnosis reduced pain intensity, improved opioid efficiency, reduced anxiety, improved wound outcome while reducing costs. The protocol-guided use of opioids improved patient care without side effects, while hypnosis had significant psychological benefits.”
—Berger, et al. “Impact of a pain protocol including hypnosis in major burns.” Burns, 2010.
How Does it Work?
Hypnosis is a natural mental state that we all drift in and out of all the time. Hypnotherapy is the process of getting you into this familiar state and helping you stay there long enough to get the job done. Hypnosis is sort of like dreaming, sort of like play, and a lot like letting things simmer in the back of your mind.
The main point of hypnotherapy is to help you reprogram the automatic part of your brain to do what you want. Brains don’t come with an operating manual, and our automatic pilots are often set to the wrong destination. In hypnosis, it’s easier to change the settings.
For reasons that, as far as I know, no one understands, both pain (and anxiety) sometimes spread beyond where they belong and afflict people unnecessarily. A person gets into a minor car accident and picks up an aversion to driving on the freeway. Usually this fades after a while, but sometimes, no one knows why, it spreads, until they’re unwilling to leave the house. We don’t know why it happens, but with hypnosis, we can reverse it.
Sometimes people have an unnecessary amount of pain in their back or their shoulder, or even, in the case of amputees, in a foot that isn’t even there anymore. I say “unnecessary” because pain isn’t always bad! If you touch a hot stove with your finger, the faster you snatch it away, the better. Pain is fine when it protects you.
But once you’ve done all you can do to take care of the painful part, shouldn’t it stop hurting? Why, yes. Yes, it should. But it often doesn’t. Painkillers and hypnosis can help with that.
The Hypnotic Process
The process works like this: people come to see me in my office for a series of one-hour sessions, usually once per week for, say, six weeks. Since hypnosis is a natural state, hypnotizing people is the easy part: I’ve only ever failed once.
During the session, you’re in a deep state of relaxation, and I walk you through hypnotic suggestions and guided imagery to promote general well-being and the resolution of your specific issues. We approach this from many different angles over time. This allows the message to reach even the outlying regions of the mind, and the variation and repetition help the message sink in and become powerful.
The goal is to have your pain vanish completely whenever it isn’t helpful, or at least to dial it down so that you can get on with your life. And, at the same time, to reduce the need for pain medication, and, if you’re quitting altogether, to eliminate or at least reduce withdrawal and cravings.
Is it all in my Head?
Stop worrying whether your brain is causing your problems. That’s beside the point. We understand the interplay between mind and body so poorly that assigning root causes is often pointless. So forget all that and focus on this: your brain is there to help you solve your problems.
Hypnosis enlists the subconscious part of your brain to solve problems and get results. Hypnotic pain control works equally well on pain with an obviously organic source, such as injuries or cancer pain, and pain that’s more mysterious, including the most mysterious pain of all: phantom limb pain.
The oldest form of hypnosis is direct suggestion: “Your pain is fading away and you are feeling more and more comfortable … quite comfortable now. And this comfort will last and last.”
Direct suggestion works better than you’d think, but humans are good at doing more than following instructions: we’re good at following procedures, metaphors, and symbolism as well. So I like the “all of the above” approach.
Here are some of the classic hypnotic pain control approaches. Some of these are openly metaphorical, some less so. The ones at the top of the list don’t interfere with day-to-day functioning, while the ones at the bottom have some downside:
- The Pain Dial: Note where the pain dial is set. Now turn it down gradually, all the way to zero. When you let go, it will adjust itself to the level that’s right for you right now. Let go and see where it settles. (Usually much lower than before.)
- Med Multiplier: From now on, pain medication works twice as well as before, and the side effects are the same or even less.
- Smart Pain: When you need to do something to take care of yourself, the pain returns, strongly enough that you’ll do take care of it. As soon as you’ve dealt with it properly, it fades just as quickly.
- Analgesia: Your pain fades away, but your other sensations (warmth, pressure, etc.) are left intact.
- Loss of emotional content: The pain is still there, but the hurt has gone out of the pain, so it’s just a sensation now.
- Externalization: The pain has been moved outside your body, floating nearby. You’re aware of it but can’t feel it.
- Anesthesia: The painful area becomes numb, as if your arm were asleep or an ice pack were applied.
- Dissociation: The painful area becomes like a block of wood, something that can’t feel.
- Time distortion: The periods of intense pain seem very, very brief, both at the time and afterwards.
Isn’t Hypnosis Just the Placebo Effect?
No, it’s the other way around: placebos are hypnosis. Sometimes people can take a sugar pill and get remarkable results, especially if there’s an elaborate setup beforehand to help build confidence in the result. Which is okay when it works, but if the sugar pill doesn’t work for you the very first time, it’s unlikely to ever work. One strike and you’re out. Now what?
Hypnotherapy has a big bag of tricks, so you can keep swinging until you get on base. That’s a big difference. And we never obscure the idea that you’re making the changes yourself.
Do the Results Last?
They seem to. Sometimes people come in for tune-up sessions once in a while, sometimes the results seem to be the new normal and maintain themselves forever.
Is It Safe?
If you have a serious health condition or a serious addiction, it’s wise to get your physician involved. In my practice, I get my clients to sign a release in such cases so I can alert their physicians. So far, doctors have been very supportive.
In general, hypnosis has a track record of being quite safe. Weird side effects, while rare, do sometimes happen. And you know what reverses them? Hypnotic suggestions!