Pain Control with Hypnosis


Acute and chronic pain control and the anxiety related to childbirth, dental and medical procedures are just a few of the many areas in which hypnosis can be used effectively. Hypnosis produces a relaxed state with enhanced concentration that helps the client engage the subconscious mind. Hypnosis opens the client to positive suggestions that the client can use to modify perceptions, sensations, emotions and behavior. The Mayo Clinic web site describes hypnosis in this way:

Hypnosis is intended to help the patient gain more control over undesired behaviors or emotions or to help them cope better with a wide range of medical conditions. Hypnosis is not considered a treatment or a type of psychotherapy. Rather, it's a procedure typically used with certain treatments and therapies to help modify response to a variety of conditions. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hypnosis/MY01020/DSECTION=why-its-done.

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Hypnosis is a treatment for pain.
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There are many procedures used to induce a state of hypnosis. A hypnotherapist can use a soft, soothing tone with relaxing music and give positive suggestions for relaxing the muscles in the body. In later sessions, it will be easier for the client to enter hypnosis and shorter inductions can be used. In the hypnotic state, hypnotherapists give suggestions for the client to achieve specific goals. These suggestions can be auditory, visual or kinesthetic depending upon the preferred processing method of the client.

Not everyone responds equally to hypnosis. Individuals vary in a trait referred to as hypnotizability. A client's ability to experience hypnotic suggestions can be inhibited by fears and concerns arising from misconceptions. A hypnotherapist will determine a person’s ability to be hypnotized by using various testing activities. The ability to be engrossed in music, a book or a movie to the extent a person is not aware of their surroundings is a common indicator of hypnotizability. Individuals can experience ‘highway hypnosis’ meaning they arrive at their destination not remembering part of a road trip. That is an indication of hypnotizability. Individuals who are more open-minded, intelligent, younger and mentally acute respond best to hypnosis.


Different to how hypnosis is sometimes portrayed in movies, on television or on stage, clients will not perform any acts contrary to their moral code. Clients will not respond to suggestions they would be averse to carrying out normally.
Clients are also taught self-hypnosis to reinforce the sessions with the hypnotherapist. Hypnosis managed by a trained therapist or health care professional is a safe complementary approach with little or no side-effects. This is particularly important in pain management since so many medications are addictive with other adverse side effects.

No one knows precisely how hypnosis reduces pain in clients. Those most common proposed explanations are:

Here is an example of a study that indicates the effects hypnosis has on the pain-inhibitory pathways. A study with 12 volunteers was carried out to document changes in blood oxygenation level dependent signals in functional magnetic resonance images (fMRI) elicited by pain induced by heat in hypnotized subjects. Comparisons were made between fMRI images with and without hypnosis in these volunteers. The following are the reported results and conclusions:

Our observations indicate that clinical hypnosis may prevent nociceptive inputs from reaching the higher cortical structures responsible for pain perception. Whether the effects of hypnosis can be explained by increased activation of the left anterior cingulate cortex and the basal ganglia as part of a possible inhibitory pathway on pain perception remains speculative given the limitations of our study design (Schulz-Stiibner et al., 2004, p.549).

Acute Pain

However hypnosis works, research indicates that it successfully reduces pain in many situations. Burn patients often find it to be quite effective. Early intervention by hypnotherapist in the emergency room, a burn patient can be given the suggestion that he or she feels coolness, like a cool breeze or ocean water on the burned area. According to a study reported by Ewin (1978) burn patients who accept these suggestions report more comfort and are easier to treat but also experience faster wound healing.

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atterson et al. (1992) conducted a study of 30 patients undergoing debridement of their burns. The patients were randomly assigned to three groups: hypnosis, attention but no hypnosis and no intervention beyond the standard care. The true hypnosis group reported a 46% decrease in pain, the placebo group (who didn’t go into hypnosis but believed they did) reported a 16% decrease and the control group reported a 14% decrease.

Another approach for an acute pain situation is to have the client rate any pain they have from 1 to 10 and then have the client give the pain a shape and a color. The client then closes his or her eyes, visualizes a liquid in the color chosen which is then poured into the shape. The client is told to constantly watch the shape and the liquid to see movement and change. The client is asked to describe any changes while being told to watch the shape and visualize, movement. After the liquid and shape are gone, the client is asked to open his or her eyes and again rate the pain. The pain is typically reduced to a manageable level. Clients can be taught to use this technique themselves.

During a hypnosis session, clients experience relaxation and a decrease in pain from the hypnotic state itself or techniques used by the hypnotherapist. Clients are given a post-hypnotic suggestion to be able to recover those relaxed, comfortable feelings through a signal such as seeing a certain color, humming or putting their index finger and thumb together.

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Which of the following are true about the use of hypnosis in controlling pain?

Clients can be taught self-hypnosis to control pain.
Hypnosis can be used with patients in acute pain.
Hypnosis can be given a post-hypnotic suggestion to reduce pain at a future date.
All of the above

Chronic pain

Syrjala et al (1992) conducted a study of 35 cancer patients randomly assigned to three groups: hypnosis, cognitive behavioral training, and attention (placebo). In this study the hypnosis groups had a significant decrease in pain from chemotherapy when compared with the other two groups.

In their review of research studies on the use of hypnosis for the management of chronic pain, Elkins, Jensen and Patterson (2007) found the research supported the use of hypnosis for pain reduction in patients with cancer, fibromyalgia, arthritis, back pain, temporomandibular conditions and sickle cell disease.