Hypnosis for Pain Management

Imagine going into surgery and instead of being given anesthesia, you are guided through self-hypnosis. Sound crazy? Well, it might not be.

For thousands of years, hypnosis has been used to treat patients suffering from chronic pain. Today, some surgeons are beginning to take hypnosis one step further, using it instead of drugs during operations. It's an intriguing method for patients who fear anesthetics could lead to side effects, even death.


Dr. Elvira Lang, associate professor of Radiology and Medicine at Harvard Medical School, pioneered recent studies that suggest hypnotherapy is extremely effective in controlling pain during surgery. The following are questions often asked about this treatment:

Q: I'm not sure what to make of hypnosis. What is it?

A: Hypnosis is a technique to help a patient reach a focused state - just like getting absorbed in a book. A therapist guides the patient to enter into a hypnotic "trance," similar to daydreaming, where the patient focuses on the sights, sounds, and sensations he or she wants to experience.

It involves relaxation, concentration, and a willingness to be helped. Despite popular belief, a hypnotherapist cannot make you do something you would not agree to do consciously.

Q: How can hypnosis work during surgery?

A: A specially-trained nurse or hypnotherapist guides the patient into a trance, usually while conveying very specific "anti-pain" messages to the patient.

While in the trance, the patient becomes so focused on positive, "pain-free" words and images that he or she is able to mentally filter out any sensations of pain. The patient may still be aware of the stimuli, but can filter out the hurt.

Painful stimuli are experienced as acceptable - analogous to bodily insult during sports, which under other circumstances we would wildly complain about.

Q: What if hypnosis doesn't work or wears off before the surgery is done?

A: During surgery, hypnotic techniques should be used only by a procedure team that is also experienced in treating pain and anxiety by medication.

Usually a combination of medication and relaxation works well. Studies show, however, that most patients who use hypnosis, with or without some anesthesia, are more relaxed and experience less pain throughout the duration of the surgery compared to patients who don't use hypnosis.


Demystifying Hypnosis

Q: How do I know if hypnosis would work for me?

A: Most people are hypnotizable. In fact, people often enter similar "trance-like" states without even knowing it.

Interestingly, studies show that patients who are the most anxious also respond the best to hypnosis. As being very anxious requires a vivid mind, all the better for bringing to life a good scenario.


Q: How can I get my doctor to offer hypnosis?

A: Hypnotherapy is gaining more acceptance as a valid medical treatment. The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, for example, has a membership of more than 4,000 physicians, psychologists, and dentists.

Cost savings may also be an incentive for more doctors to incorporate hypnosis into their practice, as studies show that the use of hypnosis during surgery actually reduces the cost of surgery - despite the need for a psychologist or training of the nursing staff.

Q: Would hypnotherapy affect my recovery post-surgery? What are the side effects?

A: Studies suggest a speedier recovery when hypnosis is used during surgery. It eliminates the risk of oversedation that can get the healing process off to a sluggish start. There are no risks or side effects.

Q: For what other diseases and conditions is hypnotherapy effective?

A: Hypnotherapy is used for a wide range of conditions in addition to pain control in surgery. It's used to treat mental disorders, addictions, and weight problems. It's successfully alleviated many symptoms associated with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, cerebral palsy, and irritable bowel syndrome.

It's even been known to help control allergies, nausea, and vomiting, reduce bleeding during surgery, steady the heartbeat, and bring down blood pressure.

If you'd like to contact Dr. Lang to inquire about hypnosis with interventional procedures at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center:

E-mail: elang@caregroup.harvard.edu

Call: (617) 754-2847

Write: Elvira V. Lang, M.D., Director

Cardiovascular and Interventional Radiology

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Department of Radiology, West Campus 308 CC

330 Brookline Ave.

Boston, MA 02215

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