Can hypnosis reduce pain? That’s a question hypnotherapists hear all the time.
And it makes a lot of sense.
Chronic pain – which according to the NIH affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined – quite literally takes over the lives of sufferers. Pain invades their thoughts, and severely impact quality of life. Pain affects so many people – about 100 million in the U.S. alone – it’s often called the “silent epidemic.
But what options do pain sufferers have for managing symptoms?
Traditionally, narcotics have been one of the most commonly prescribed solutions. But more and more, sufferers are looking for non-chemical treatment options – one of which is hypnosis.
And it works.
A compelling body of evidence has proven time and again hypnosis can numb, reduce pain, or even eliminate chronic pain completely. And that’s why hypnosis is a potential treatment for all types of pain: Chronic, acute, labor pains and surgical pain, to name a few.
Even the American Psychological Association says that hypnosis is a likely option for chronic pain sufferers. In fact, one meta-analysis cited by the APA showed that across 18 studies an average of 75% of participants experienced “substantial relief” for their symptoms through hypnotherapy.
Now, you might be wondering, why? How can something like hypnotherapy – which is similar to meditation, but with a goal – be effective for pain management.
Read on to learn more. We’ll provide an in-depth explanation of pain, how it’s controlled by your brain, how hypnosis can help, and what the research says in this article.
What Is Pain?
Pain, in simple terms, is a signal your body sends to your brain that something needs attention. You break your arm, and the body sends a signal to the brain that you are in danger. The sensation of pain, thusly, is sent to protect the body against further damage.
That’s a fairly simple answer. But this complex neurological communication system is important to understand. Ultimately, through hypnosis, we can begin to reprogram how this system works, to help reduce chronic and acute pain.
But what is acute and chronic pain? What are their differences?
- Acute Pain: Acute pain is short-term, and is often the result of tissue damage. For example, a paper cut is an example of very minor acute pain. But acute pain can also be significant. Surgery and the pain of childbirth are both examples of acute pain, as well.
Hypnosis can be a powerful tool for managing acute pain. For example, Jack Gibson, an Irish surgeon, claimed to have performed more than 4,000 procedures free of anesthesia – using hypnosis instead.
- Chronic Pain: Chronic pain, on the other hand, is long-term, ongoing pain. Often, after an injury or illness, chronic pain continues after the injury has healed. The body continues to signal the brain that’s something’s wrong. And over time, the body becomes more sensitive to these ongoing signals, which intensifies the pain sensation.
Chronic pain can also be related to a variety of conditions like headaches, arthritis, cancer, nerve pain, or back pain. Research has shown that hypnosis can be a powerful tool for managing chronic pain intensity and severity, and that it can improve pain coping, reduce the effect it has on quality of life and improve sleep.
Pain and the Conscious Mind
Let’s say you suffered a paper cut. The physical sensation at the finger would send that message up to your brain. “Hey, we think there’s problem down here.”
Your brain would then instantaneously begin processing that sensory information – cross-referencing it against all your past experiences with paper cuts, your attitudes and beliefs – and BAM, you feel “pain” at the finger.
But here’s the thing: The physical sensation of “pain” doesn’t occur because of the damaged tissue on your fingertip. The feeling is created in the brain. Your finger doesn’t actually feel “pain.”
Instead, it’s that complex neural network first sending the message that something’s not right, and then projecting the “pain” back down.
In other words, pain is a construct of the brain. When the brain receives messages about potential problems (whether a paper cut, a broken bone, etc.) it processes all of the information we have, and creates the sensation of pain. All of our attitudes, beliefs and expectations about what we will feel affect the physical sensation of pain. If we expect it to hurt alot, the intensity will increase.
This point was brilliantly illustrated by pain researcher Lorimer Moseley in his fascinating TED Talk on pain.
Moseley noted a study in which participants were asked to wear a device that they were told would cause a headache as the intensity of the machine increased. The participants could see the intensity knob being turned up. The thing was: The machine wasn’t causing any pain, and delivered no stimulus.
Even so, participants reported feeling the most intense pain when the intensity knob was turned all the way up. They expected pain to be greatest at the highest intensity, and therefore, imagined the pain.
And that’s why hypnosis can be such a powerful pain reliever.
Hypnosis empowers us to reframe our thoughts and expectations about pain. Thusly, we can use hypnosis to reprogram how the mind responds to the “signal,” i.e. to have different expectations, to distract us from these sensations, to reframe them in a more positive light, or to completely numb of reduce the sensation.
Using Hypnosis to Reframe Pain
The mind is stubborn. We’ve built and reinforced our beliefs, attitudes and expectations over a lifetime. And that’s true about how the mind thinks about pain.
When we stub a toe, we have expectations about how bad it will hurt, attitudes about how we should feel, and believe we will feel pain. Hypnosis works by unlocking and releasing some of those preconceived notions, and allows us to work directly with the subconscious mind – the part of the brain that controls the pain response. Through hypnosis, we can provide it with new and better ways of responding to pain.
For example, a chronic pain sufferer expects pain to persist and has an attitude that it won’t go away. This anxiety, in turn, activates the pain response. Those signals fire more regularly, and the pain persists. Hypnosis can help the chronic pain sufferer to first recognize this unconscious response, and empower her to understand how to use the unconscious to reduce the feeling of pain.
Hypnosis helps in two ways: Relaxation and perceptual alteration. First, by going into a hypnotic trance, the body relaxes. This greatly reduces muscle tension – a common pain intensifier.
Once we’re in a relaxed state, hypnotic suggestions can help us to alter our perception of the pain sensation. Hypnotherapists use many techniques to alter perception. But in particular, four of the most common techniques include: Distraction, reframing, numbing and dissociation.
- Distraction: Do you remember the 1996 Olympics, when Keri Strung – with a severely sprained ankle – landed a vault to win Olympic Gold? She was in an immense amount of pain, but still, she was able to run and land her jump. How? Quite simply, she was distracted by the biggest moment in her athletic career.
When we distract the mind away from pain, we can reduce or (like in Strung’s case) completely push it from our thoughts. During hypnosis, we can ask the subconscious to think about other areas of the body or to imagine past experiences free of pain. By distracting the unconscious away from the pain, we can reduce or eliminate it completely. Over time, using distraction we can train the mind to alleviate pain.
- Reframing: Pain hurts. That’s the sensation that we feel. But what if we could alter our perception of the sensation. What if that feeling of hurt, could be transformed into an itching sensation?
That’s the basic idea of reframing: Altering how the mind perceives pain sensations. The “father of modern hypnotherapy” Milton Erickson, for instance, once helped a motorcyclist who’d been in an accident reframe the “burning” pain he was feeling, into a lukewarm and ultimately a cool sensation. Hypnosis provides direct access to the subconscious – where these sensations are formulated. Once a hypnotherapist accesses the subconscious, they can feed it with suggestions that override previous thoughts (i.e. reframe the perception).
- Numbing: What if we could apply a numbing sensation to the affected area? What if we could perceive numbing to reduce pain? That’s possible in deep hypnosis.
Hypnosis is a lot like REM sleep – the point in the sleep cycle when you begin to dream. As such, we feel a disconnect with the conscious mind. Numbing requires us to first remember a time we felt numbness, i.e. after a dental injection or after holding an ice cube for too long. The hypnotherapist can then ask that this numbness spread to the afflicted area, helping to reduce or dull the sensation of pain.
- Dissociation: Dentists often ask their patients to think about a good memory and “go there,” while they perform a particularly painful procedure. This idea is similar to hypnotic dissociation. With dissociation, we ask ourselves to either A) separate the painful area from the body or B) to imagine an out-of-body experience.
This allows us to dissociate ourselves from the pain, and remove it. And overtime, using this technique – whether during one-on-one or self-hypnosis – we can begin to gain control over the sensation and replace it with what we experience during dissociation.
All of these techniques have one thing in common: They allow us to process pain differently. When that signal shoots up to the brain, these techniques help to reprogram the natural, automatic response, and we’re able to reduce, numb, or experience pain in a different, more helpful way.
Does It Work?
Hypnosis for pain management might be one of the most researched areas of the field. High-quality scientific testing and trials have been performed for all types of pain hypnosis: Back pain hypnotherapy, hypno-anesthesia for surgery, chronic pain hypnosis. You name it; it’s been researched.
And the evidence has been compelling.
Numerous studies have shown a significant reduction of pain for participants who use hypnotherapy. Up to 75% in many trials show significant pain reduction, using hypnosis. Here is a sampling of hypnosis for a variety of different areas of chronic and acute pain:
Surgical Pain. A 2016 review of research founded that in a majority of studies hypnosis was shown to reduce procedural pain, and that hypnotic anesthetic (similar to what Gibson claimed to have used) was effective for minor procedures. Similarly, hypnosis has been shown to reduce bleeding and improve wound healing post-surgery, leading to faster recovery.
Another study, published in the journal Neurosurgery looked at how hypnosedation could help during awake brain procedures. The results: Hypnosis helped to reduce the impact of unpleasant parts of the surgery, help patients remain calm, and pain was reduced.
Another recent study looked at using hypnosis for pain relief, following surgical procedures. The findings: Just a 15-minute hypnosis session resulted in a decrease in pain similar to what you’d expect from an opioid. Patients reported a 29-percent reduction in pain.
Back Pain. Chronic back pain is one of the most non-surgical causes of long-lasting pain, and it’s a No. 1 reason for disability. Researchers have found a positive relationship between hypnosis and a reduction in back pain. A 2015 study examined how hypnosis could help veterans with back pain reduce pain intensity. The results: Hypnosis significantly helped improve quality of life and reduce pain intensity. In fact, more than 50% of participants reported meaningful pain reduction that lasted 6+ months.
A 1983 study also found that self-hypnosis could improve pain intensity, help improve sleep, and result in less problematic medication use following treatment.
Cancer. Ongoing cancer treatment often results in recurring and lasting pain, and treatment procedures themselves can be highly painful. Research has looked at both aspects: Pain caused by individual treatments, as well as ongoing and recurring pain.
In 1983, David Spiegel, a preeminent hypnotherapy researcher, examined how hypnosis could help breast cancer patients manage pain caused by treatment. Over the course of a year, patients who received self-hypnosis training reported significant reductions in pain and suffering, (although the duration and frequency of episodes didn’t change). Spiegel’s research suggest hypnosis can be a powerful tool for pain management during cancer treatments.
Similarly, many individual treatments cause patient distress, anxiety and pain. A 1982 study examined if hypnosis prior to these treatments could help to reduce pain and anxiety. During bone marrow and lumbar puncture procedures, participants who utilized hypnosis reported significantly less pain.
Arthritis. In 2002, researchers conducted a study looking at the effect of three interventions of osteoarthritic pain: Hypnosis, relaxation and no treatment. Participants who received hypnosis – 8 weekly hypnosis sessions – reported long-lasting and significant reduction in pain, even at the 4- and 6-month mark. Hypnosis was as effective as relaxation, which could suggest that a program of hypnosis with relaxation techniques could be a powerful option for arthritic pain.
Birth and Labor Pain. Hypnosis for labor pain offers two benefits. It can help reduce the intensity of pain during labor, and it can reduce the need for narcotics and analgesics for pain relief during labor. A 2004 systematic review looked at roughly 20 studies looking, finding that hypnosis helped to reduce pain intensity, as well as reduce opioid and analgesic use for relief.
Getting Started with Hypnosis
The good news: You can test hypnosis in your home, right now. Self-hypnosis involves following a script or recording to reach hypnosis. Download our pain management hypnosis recording now to see for yourself.