It’s Not Hooey!

Don’t confuse medical hypnosis with the flamboyant stage shows that feature a swinging watch, a performer in a glittery jacket and volunteers from the audience, all quacking like ducks.

Hypnosis-enhanced therapy is a legitimate treatment for various medical problems—and unlike many treatments, it is noninvasive and totally safe.

Here’s what hypnosis really helps…

Irritable bowel syndrome

IBS is a mysterious, often debilitating condition that causes cramps and intermittent episodes of diarrhea, pain and constipation. Medications to treat it aren’t very effective.

Several well-designed studies of hypnotherapy for IBS have shown that IBS patients who were treated with hypnosis had “substantial, long-term improvement” of gastrointestinal symptoms, along with less anxiety and depression. It’s possible that hypnosis alters how the central nervous system responds to intestinal signals. It also diverts people’s attention from their intestinal sensations and causes them to perceive less discomfort.

Pain relief

Hypnosis doesn’t necessarily reduce pain, but it does alter how people react to it. Studies have shown, for example, that hypnotized dental patients have a higher pain threshold. They also have less anxiety, which reduces sensitivity to pain.

One study, which looked at patients with burn injuries, used virtual-reality technology to induce hypnosis. Patients wore a fiber-optic helmet that immersed them in a make-believe environment. As they descended into a snowy, three-dimensional canyon, an audiotape with a clinician’s voice prepared them for what they would experience during the treatment of the burn.

Result: They had a decrease in both pain and anxiety—and their need for potent painkillers was reduced by half.

Help quitting smoking

About 65% to 70% of smokers who are treated with medical hypnosis quit successfully, according to research. That’s much better than the quit rate from going cold turkey (about 20%) or using stop-smoking drugs including nicotine therapy (35% to 40%).

Hypnosis isn’t a miracle cure for smoking or other addictions. Anyone who takes the time to schedule appointments with a therapist already is highly motivated. The success rate would be lower for those who remain on the fence about quitting. That said, hypnosis still is more effective than standard treatments.

Better cancer care

The radiation therapy that’s used to treat some cancers often causes fatigue as a side effect. Researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital, New York City, found that cancer patients who underwent hypnosis during a common kind of counseling called cognitive-behavioral therapy experienced less fatigue than participants in a control group.

The study, published in Journal of Clinical Oncology, showed that after six months, the average patient treated with hypnosis had less fatigue than 95% of those who weren’t hypnotized.

Less surgical pain

Another study of cancer patients found that those who had a single, 15-minute hypnosis session prior to their surgery required less sedation and experienced less nausea, pain and fatigue than those in a nonhypnosis group.

Mount Sinai researchers analyzed 20 studies on hypnosis and surgery, and they found that in 89% of cases, hypnotized surgical patients had less pain, used less pain medication and recovered faster.

Chronic fatigue

A six-month study at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, showed that 73% of participants who had chronic fatigue syndrome reported increased energy, more restful periods of sleep and better concentration at work. This is far better than the national average of 23% of people who improve with other types of therapy.

How You Can Try Hypnosis

Because of its long association with parlor tricks, hypnosis still is a subject of confusion. A few facts: You don’t go into a trance during hypnosis…you are more in control of yourself than usual, not less…and you won’t do anything that you don’t want to do.

A specially trained therapist will use guided imagery to focus and direct your imagination. It is the same technique sometimes used during meditation.

Example: While you relax, the therapist will encourage you to breathe slowly and deeply…to imagine a soothing scene (such as walking in the woods)…and to keep your mind focused on just that one thing. This is known as the ­induction phase. Your brain activity slows, but you still are focused and alert.

At this point, medical hypnosis diverges from traditional meditation. While you are in a relaxed state, the therapist will guide your thinking toward particular issues.

Suppose that you have arthritis and that your arm always hurts. The therapist might describe a scene in which you’re walking to a lake…submerging yourself in icy water…and feeling your arm go pleasantly numb. The positive ­effects can last for minutes to hours to forever.

Research has shown that people who are mentally and physically relaxed are more receptive to taking in new ideas and feeling in new ways.

To find a hypnotist who can help you, look for a licensed health-care professional who offers hypnosis as only one part of his/her practice. Someone who only does hypnosis may not have the understanding of health-care issues to properly diagnose and treat you. The Web sites for the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis ( and the Society for Clinical & Experimental ­Hypnosis ( have referral pages that can help you find an expert in your area.

Expect to complete between four and 10 sessions. The cost per session is about the same as you would pay for other types of counseling. Example: Depending on where you live, you might pay about $150 for a session with a psychologist. You will pay less if you see a social worker, nurse or mental-health counselor.

Most insurance companies do not cover hypnosis per se, but they may cover therapy that includes hypnosis. Medicare covers “hypnotherapy” for certain conditions.