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Hypnosis as a Treatment for Pain

Learn to think your pain away

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One out of three Americans has an opioid prescription for pain control. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 130 people in the United States die every day after overdosing on opioids. In 2017, an estimated 1.7 million people in the United States suffered from substance abuse disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers.

Opiates are indicated and effective for acute pain control. They are meant to be used for a few days only. Taking opiates for longer than 3 days can be extremely problematic in that the chances of getting addicted start increasing. As the drug wears off you get rebound pain and the pain seems to get worse. That’s what gets people addicted.

Did you know that pain affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined? That pain is the most common reason Americans access the health care system? And that chronic pain (pain that persists for longer than 6 months) is the most common cause of long-term disability?

So you see, there’s a tremendous need to use non-pharmacologic ways to help people deal with pain. An alternative has been around and used effectively for hundreds of years. And it doesn’t kill people, isn’t addictive and can be extremely effective. At the 2018 World Economic Forum, Stanford Psychiatrist David Spiegel, MD, gave a talk on “Replacing Opioids with Hypnosis for Pain Treatment". He began his talk by saying, “There’s a prejudice in modern medicine that the only real interventions are the physical ones,” He continued to say, “Self-hypnosis is a powerful, underutilized tool that could have a significant impact on the opioid crisis.”

Most of us have used a hypnotic intervention for pain control. Remember when you kissed a child’s booboo and made it all better? Did the kiss really heal the wound?

So let’s talk about pain and why hypnosis can help.

In 1664 Descartes proposed that “pain is like a bell-ringing alarm system whose sole purpose is to signal injury to the body”. What does that mean? When you hurt your finger, your body sends a signal to the brain stating that something has happened which needs further attention. The pain is a signal to get you to protect that finger from further damage and to take care of it. As you see, pain is an important and necessary sensation designed to alert you to a problem in a certain area of your body. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s important. Chronic pain causes discomfort long after everything that could be done and should be done about the medical issue that caused the pain has been addressed, and it, therefore, no longer serves a purpose.

The experience of pain differs from person to person because the brain influences our experience of pain. How we interpret pain is affected by:

  • age and sex;
  • memories of previous pain;
  • emotional and psychological states;
  • expectations of and attitudes towards pain;
  • beliefs, values and upbringing;
  • social and cultural influences.

What is hypnosis and how do we use it to treat pain?

Hypnosis is simply a state of focused attention. That’s it in a nutshell. The therapist guides you to get relaxed, sometimes called being in a trance state, which helps you focus your attention on, in this case, the experience of pain. The focused attention will be without judgment, without caring about the context in which it is, and the relaxation will help you to be more open to suggestions given by the therapist. Being hypnotized is something like looking through a microscope. What you see you see with a great deal of detail but you’re less aware of and concerned about the context it’s in.

Have you ever gotten so caught up in a movie that you lost track of what was going on around you? Or have you gone to a movie with a headache and found the movie so absorbing that you forgot you had a headache? You’ve put something you would normally pay attention to the outside of your conscious awareness and you’ve lost your judgment about it. You focused your attention solely on the movie.

Hypnosis also lends to a tendency to respond relatively automatically to suggestions or instructions. In hypnosis, people are less likely to critically judge what you’re asking them to do. That does not mean the therapist has control over the patient, not at all. One of the major misconceptions people have about hypnosis is that it’s taking control over somebody. That simply isn’t true. People always have the ability and power to accept or reject what the therapist says and, will never do anything they do not wish to do.

What I do as a Hypnotherapist is to teach my patients how to enhance control over their own bodies. It’s not about what I do to the patients, it’s about what I teach them to do for themselves. During a hypnosis session, my goal is to help people become more internally focused to the point that they don’t pay attention to anything happening outside of themselves. It’s not that they don’t hear the noise in the hallway, they just don’t pay any attention to it and don’t care about it. When focused on themselves, people can utilize skills they might not have recognized before, such as controlling their pain.

How do they do that?

They do that by accessing a part of the brain that allows them to lower the intensity of the pain, often to the point of making it disappear. PET scans have shown that hypnotic states can alter cortical and subcortical structures involved in different aspects of pain processing which in turn, allows sensations that would normally be experienced as pain to no longer have the suffering emotions associated with them.

There are several different methods Hypnotherapists may use to help their patients decrease their experience of pain. All of these techniques share a commonality. They allow us to process pain differently.

Does it work?

In the last 15 years, hypnosis for pain management has been exhaustively researched. With modern technology, MRIs, PET scans, etc., researchers have been able to prove that changes take place in the brain while under hypnosis. The evidence is compelling that Hypnosis can be extremely successful in helping people reduce pain.

I will discuss the different techniques used in Hypnotherapy for pain reduction in my next article.

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