You are getting very sleepy…

Hypnosis is usually thought of as a stage show, or a way of helping people to quit habits like smoking. A woman being hypnotisedBut new research published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute this week has suggested that hypnosis before breast cancer surgery may help to reduce the amount of anaesthetic needed, as well as reducing pain afterwards.

Hypnosis on trial
People having surgery for breast cancer often suffer side effects such as pain, feeling sick, and tiredness during and after their operation. These problems can lead to longer hospital stays, or needing additional treatment.

Researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and their colleagues carried out a clinical trial to test hypnosis, using two hundred women randomly split into two groups. Half were given hypnosis by a psychologist before their surgery, while the others just talked to a psychologist. Randomised controlled trials like these are vital for ensuring that the results are reliable, and are important for upholding the scientific integrity of tests of unconventional approaches such as hypnotherapy.

In the trial, the women given hypnosis generally said they felt less pain, sickness, tiredness, and emotional upset after surgery, compared with the control group. They also spent less time in surgery, and needed less anaesthetic. And as well as improving things for patients physically and mentally, the researchers also found that the costs of surgery were cut by more than US$700 (around £350) per person.

Why does it work?
Hypnosis certainly isn’t a new idea in medicine. Way back in 1846, a Scottish surgeon called James Esdaile reported success using the technique as anaesthetic for surgery. With the subsequent development of more reliable and effective anaesthetics, hypnosis was ignored by the medical profession for the next 150 years, but this new evidence (as well as many other studies) may herald its welcome back into the fold.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the mind can be a powerful tool in controlling pain, and that it can be trained to “float rather than fight”. However, the mechanisms by which hypnosis works aren’t entirely certain. Given that you appear to pay attention to pain for it to hurt, and hypnosis seems to divert attention away from pain, it’s likely that it is somehow bypassing the centres in the brain that are responsible for pain perception.

Could hypnosis have particular relevance for people with cancer? Perhaps so. In the words of Dr David Spiegel from Stanford University Medical School, who has written an insightful commentary on this research:

“Cancer is a disease that hijacks patients’ attention. Those coming for […] surgery are understandably anxious about the outcome. They are thus hyperattentive to every pain and its possible implications.”

So using hypnosis to redirect a patient’s attention might have particular benefits to people undergoing surgery for cancer.

What are we waiting for?
So if hypnosis can reduce pain and anxiety, and reduce drug use as well as surgical time and costs, why don’t we all do it? Perhaps it’s the suspicion within the medical profession – as well as the public – that hypnosis is the domain of flashy stage performers. But as more and more evidence is gathered to support its use, it may make sense for the NHS to examine the possibility of adopting hypnosis techniques, especially for people with cancer.

…And you’re back in the room.