Hypnotherapy: panacea or placebo?

Clinical hypnotherapy can be defined as being a combination of both hypnosis and psychological intervention. Katy Silberger

The term hypnosis often leads to visions of willing participants engaging in outrageous and embarrassing stunts at the command of a hypnotist. But while this practice of humiliating participants on stage may be entertaining, it undermines the credibility of clinical hypnotherapy.

Clinical hypnotherapy can be defined as being a combination of both hypnosis and psychological intervention. The hypnosis component of hypnotherapy is used to induce a deep state of relaxation whereby the subconscious part of the mind becomes highly receptive to suggestions and directions made by the hypnotist.

Various treatment goals can be met by altering the suggestions and directions made during a trance state. A patient with irritable bowel syndrome, for instance, can be given suggestions directed towards the control and normalisation of gut function.

Origin and use

The concept of hypnosis dates as far back as recorded history. But the modern scientific understanding of hypnosis originated with Scottish physician James Braid (1795-1860), who coined the word “hypnotism”. He rejected supernatural explanations of trance and grounded the study of hypnosis on a neuro-psychological basis. Over the years, interest in hypnosis has grown and it’s now approved by the British Medical Association and the American Medical Association.

Numerous research studies suggest that hypnotherapy may be beneficial in the management and treatment of a wide range of conditions and problems encountered in the practice of medicine, psychiatry and psychotherapy.

And the body of literature that has developed to support the use of hypnotherapy for the management and relief of both acute pain and chronic pain is respectable. Numerous controlled clinical trials have shown a reduction of acute pain associated with invasive medical procedures, burn injuries and bone marrow aspirations.

Similarly, trials have shown a reduction in chronic pain associated with cancer, fibromyalgia, arthritis and non-cardiac chest pain.

There’s also encouraging evidence to demonstrate the beneficial effects of hypnotherapeutic procedures in alleviating the symptoms of a range of psychosomatic disorders. These include tension headaches and migraines, asthma and possibly skin complaints such as eczema, psoriasis and urticaria. But perhaps the most convincing evidence is for the use of hypnotherapy for gastrointestinal complaints including irritable bowel syndrome.

Hypnotherapy is currently the most evidence based mind-body intervention for irritable bowel syndrome. There have been several well-designed randomised controlled trials and they have consistently shown a reduction in abdominal symptoms including abdominal pain, bloating, constipation and diarrhoea.

Embarrassing stunts at the command of a stage hypnotist undermine the credibility of clinical hypnotherapy. Iggy Dolphin

What’s more, hypnotherapy has been shown to improve overall well-being and quality of life, reduce anxiety and depression and reduce medication needs. But cognitive behavioural therapy remains the most accepted psychological mind-body intervention for irritable bowel syndrome and more research with high-quality trials is needed before any conclusions about the superiority of hypnotherapy for irritable bowel syndrome can be made.

Future pathways

Too few studies have been published investigating the use of hypnosis as adjunct therapy in broader psychotherapeutic programs for the treatment of specific psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction and disorder, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, speech and language disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and phobic disorders.

But it’s becoming clear that health professionals are more open to using hypnotherapy for a wide range of conditions relating to the mind and body, which can help people of all ages, backgrounds and gender to find an effective solution to many disorders. But we need to be cautious about the professional and ethical considerations in the therapeutic practice of hypnosis.

Qualified hypnotherapists with certified government-accredited training should be sought. And anyone using hypnosis for therapeutic purposes should confine its application to problems he or she is professionally qualified to treat.

Hypnotherapy is both time consuming and expensive for the patient and this needs to be considered when a therapist is sought.

This is the eighth article in our series Panacea or Placebo. Click on the links below to read the other instalments: