Can Hypnosis Help Relieve Chronic Pain?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Two new studies suggest that hypnotherapy can relieve pain for some patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) and other chronic pain conditions.

The first study, published in The Lancet medical journal, involved nearly 500 IBS patients who were recruited from 11 hospitals in the Netherlands. IBS is a common condition characterized by repeated attacks of stomach pain, cramps, diarrhea and constipation.

Study participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups: individual hypnotherapy, group hypnotherapy, or support sessions that included dietary advice and education about IBS.  The hypnotherapy sessions were designed to reduce pain and discomfort from IBS.

After three months, 41% of the people in individual hypnotherapy and 33% of those in group hypnotherapy reported adequate relief, compared to less than 17% of those in education and support sessions.   

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The results from group hypnotherapy were even better after 9 months. Nearly half the patients in that group reported relief from IBS symptoms.

“The trial finding that hypnotherapy works better than educational support adds evidence to previous studies showing that hypnotherapy may have a helpful effect,” the UK’s National Health Service said in a review of the Dutch study. “The finding that group hypnotherapy works about as well as individual hypnotherapy is interesting, as this means many people could be treated by the same therapist at the same time, which could reduce waiting times and the cost of treatment.

“It also demonstrates that unfortunately, even with the best care, IBS can still be a difficult condition to treat. Half or more people receiving hypnotherapy still gained no symptom relief.”

Hypnosis and CRPS

Another hypnosis study, recently reported by Japanese researchers at the World Congress of Pain, involved 121 patients with refractory chronic pain – also known as intractable pain – who agreed to hypnotherapy either biweekly or in monthly 60 minute sessions. The patients all had chronic conditions that were difficult to treat, such as CRPS, phantom limb pain, neuropathic pain and cancer pain.

Researchers found that 71% of the patients reported pain relief during the hypnosis sessions. And for many of them, the analgesic effect continued after the session ended.

“These patients have all undergone multidisciplinary pain treatment, including medication, physiotherapy and CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy),” Miyuki Mizutani, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Aichi Medical University, told Pain Medicine News. “And ultimately, they did not respond completely to those treatments. So we believe the untreatable part of the pain can be treated by hypnosis.”

Hypnotherapy even works for patients with CRPS, although they often require more hypnosis sessions before having an analgesic effect.

“I’ve now been performing hypnosis for 18 years, and have found it very effective in those patients, though it can be difficult to administer in chronic pain,” Mizutani said. “It takes time, and complete remission is not very common. However, our experience is that repeated analgesic experiences can lead to long-term improvements in chronic pain.”