Understand the hype over hypnosis
by Michael Schroeder
Breathing problems, stress, anxiety, headache pain. Brian Larsen, a 24-year-old with cystic fibrosis, says he's better able to control them all using self-hypnosis.
"You can't manipulate matter or anything like that, but it has helped me manage pain and other problems effectively," says Larsen, whose pediatric pulmonologist, Dr. Ran Anbar, taught him how to achieve the altered state of consciousness when he was 13.
Larsen still requires treatments and medicines for cystic fibrosis, but the Albany, N.Y., resident says the ability to focus his attention through hypnosis has allowed him to exercise longer without breathing difficulty, sleep better and forgo pain medications for occasional headaches.
"You're more aware and in control of everything that's going on," says Larsen, adding it's improved his outlook on life.
Increased acceptance despite obstacles
Researchers, including Anbar, have found hypnosis — used in medicine since the 19th century and achieved through a combination of relaxation and narrow focus — can speed healing, reduce pain, decrease stress and help people manage chronic diseases.
Those practicing the discipline, from psychologists, doctors and dentists to individuals trained in hypnotherapy who aren't licensed in a health field, say it's finally, albeit slowly, gaining acceptance in clinical settings.
David Spiegel, the director of the Center on Stress and Health at the Stanford School of Medicine in Stanford, Calif., and a psychiatrist who's used hypnosis in his practice for 40 years, agrees it's a versatile tool. He says large randomized clinical trials show people who undergo hypnosis before painful medical procedures typically require less medication, have fewer complications and less anxiety, and get through the procedure faster.
Angie's List members say they've undergone hypnosis or performed self-hypnosis to recover more quickly from knee surgery, block pain during natural child birth and deal with stress.
But it doesn't work for everyone. Spiegel says about one-third of the adult population can't be hypnotized, while other experts and hypnotherapists believe anyone open to being hypnotized, except for some people dealing with certain mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, can potentially benefit.
"In over 17 years of practice, I've only met five people I could not hypnotize," says Valorie Wells, a highly rated hypnotherapist in Kansas City, Kan.
Pain is in the brain
Stacie Murrer, a highly rated dentist in Monroeville, Pa., who offers hypnosis as an alternative to needle pricks of anesthesia for routine procedures such as fillings, says children are most open to the idea that they can control what they feel by using their mind. Research shows the younger set tend to be easier to hypnotize, likely because they're more suggestible.
Once relaxed, Murrer tells children they have an imaginary switch in the back of their head connected to the tooth she'll be working on. "When the tooth is turned off, they can stay comfortable," she says. If the patient feels pain, Murrer administers anesthesia.
While under hypnosis, member Peg Schmidt of Pittsburgh has had fillings done by Murrer without Novacain. "I went as far as having a root canal without anesthesia," she says. "I did not feel a thing. I was shocked."
Hard to imagine for anyone who's ever writhed in a dentist's chair, but experts say pain is all in the brain. It tends to hijack attention, Spiegel explains, but over time we can train our mind to partially or fully block it out.
Questions about the practice remain
Despite advances in the understanding of this discipline, some basic questions still loom large, such as what qualifies as a hypnotic state, what training is necessary to induce this state and how one should go about finding a competent hypnotist. There's no shortage of organizations certifying hypnotherapists, with training ranging from a weekend to hundreds of hours.
And very few states regulate the practice, though some, such as New Jersey, limit scope of practice or require supervision. Indiana recently eliminated its licensing program, citing lack of consumer and professional interest, and many say the industry is best served by self-regulation and competition.
Some professional associations like the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis say training hours are irrelevant without a license in a health care profession — something most certifying bodies don't require but ASCH does.
"A non-licensed 'hypnotist' may place the patient at significantly higher risk of mistreatment or misdiagnosis," says Anbar, the group's president-elect.
Others, including Randal Churchill, president of the American Council of Hypnotist Examiners, which requires 300 training hours to be a certified clinical hypnotherapist, argue practitioners who aren't licensed health professionals tend to have more training in hypnosis itself and say the rift is more about turf than safety.
Still, most agree anyone considering hypnosis for health reasons should ask about an individual's training, experience and spend time getting to know them before undergoing hypnosis.
Supplemental, not a replacement
A doctor's referral is also recommended. "I won't work with anyone who has a diagnosed medical or psychiatric condition without a doctor's referral," says Lynda Malerstein, a highly rated hypnotherapist in Los Angeles.
Malerstein says she's undergone hundreds of hours of training in hypnosis; she's board certified by the National Guild of Hypnotists, among other organizations, but she isn't licensed in a health profession.
She concedes Anbar's point that one could miss a diagnosis without medical training, but says she provides a supplemental service — not a replacement — to medical and mental health care.
Angie's List member Debbie Heisman credits Malerstein with helping her overcome mysterious balance and shaking issues, which befuddled doctors and began when she returned from a long flight to Australia in 2007.
Her left shoulder, sometimes both shoulders, shook frequently, as did her eyes, a condition called nystagmus, making objects appear as if they were bouncing. "By the third visit [with Malerstein], the shoulder had stopped shaking totally, the nystagmus was gone," Heisman says.
She still requires a cane to get around, but Heisman relies on it much less than she did. And, while she was never a skeptic of hypnosis, she's certainly a believer now. "It's like nothing I've ever encountered," she says. "If you go with the flow, you can accomplish so much."
— Additional reporting by Jackie Norris
If you've been to a psychologist, doctor or another professional who performed hypnotherapy, please submit a report at Angie's List about your experience.