Could hypnosis relieve pain? The largest meta-analysis to date concludes that it could be a viable, safe, cost-effective option.
Researchers estimate that chronic pain affects more than 1.5 billion individuals globally.
Doctors often prescribe opioid medications to treat this type of pain. However, these drugs are expensive and, of course, highly addictive.
As the opioid crisis unfolds, scientists are increasingly focused on finding alternative ways to tackle pain.
Recently, researchers from the University of Greenwich in London, United Kingdom, assessed whether hypnosis might be useful against certain types of pain. To do this, they collated and analyzed 85 existing studies.
Hypnosis is side-effect free and, if individuals use pre-recorded audio to produce hypnosis, it can be incredibly cost-effective.
The researchers published their meta-analysis in the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.
Hypnosis and pain revisited
Over the years, several studies and reviews have assessed hypnosis as an analgesic — sometimes, researchers refer to this as hypnoanalgesia. For instance, a review published in 2016 looked at pain during childbirth.
The authors concluded that “Hypnosis may reduce the overall use of analgesia during labor, but not epidural use.” The authors also explain that “[f]urther research is needed in the form of large, well‐designed randomized controlled trials.”
Another review, published in 2000, looked at pain more generally. The researchers combined data from 18 studies.
The authors concluded that there was a “moderate to large hypnoanalgesic effect.” Although intriguing, according to the authors of the current review, these findings had “several important limitations,” not least a lack of studies to include in their analysis.
Since 2000, interest in hypnoanalgesia has grown, and the number of new studies has grown in line. In total, the latest analysis includes 85 studies.
All of the studies used experimental pain models, such as extreme cold, shocks, pressure, exercise, and lasers. Also, all of the studies compared the benefits of hypnosis with no treatment (rather than testing them against a placebo or drug), and they all recruited healthy adults.
The researchers only collected studies that used a quantitive assessment of pain, for instance, the use of a 10-point scale. Overall, the analysis included 3,632 participants.
Sensitivity to hypnosis
Because not everyone succumbs to hypnosis to the same extent, the review also took into account each participant’s level of susceptibility.
There are a number of ways that researchers can assess how susceptible someone is to hypnosis. For instance, following a suggestion that the participant’s arm is heavy, they might lower their hand. If they drop it by 6 inches or more, the practitioner might consider them to be more suggestible than someone whose arm moved only 1 inch.
Once the analysis was complete, the results came out in favor of hypnosis as a potentially useful analgesic. Lead author Trevor Thompson, Ph.D., says:
“This is by far the largest review of its kind, examining the effects of hypnosis in over 3,500 people, and presents very compelling evidence. About 15% of the population are highly receptive to hypnosis, and those people saw just over a 40% drop in pain.”
It was not just the people who were most susceptible to hypnosis who saw the benefits. Most people are moderately suggestible, and they experienced a 29% reduction in pain.