Hypnosis has been found to be very effective in the management and relief of pain. There are many studies and years of research to support this and many people who would attest to finding relief and being able to live their lives more productively through the use of hypnosis. The question then is how and why does hypnosis work so well for pain? To explain the very effective way hypnosis can help with pain management, we first have to understand what pain is and how it works in the communication system between our body and our brain. We have a very complex neural communication system that helps to keep us safe and healthy. According to the American Dictionary:
“Pain is an uncomfortable feeling that tells you something may be wrong. It can be steady, throbbing, stabbing, aching, pinching, or described in many other ways. Sometimes, it is just a nuisance, like a mild headache … Acute pain is usually severe and short-lived, and is often a signal that your body has been injured.”
The answer to the question “what is pain?” however, is more complex than you might think. You can not always draw a straight line between pain and damage or cause. Think of trauma or phantom limb pain where the painful body part no longer exists. It is complicated; however, scientists and neuroscience agree that pain is generally an unpleasant feeling that leads us to want to change our behavior and it is a very advanced protective mechanism.
Why is pain so complicated and generally misunderstood? How does it really work? First pain is a signal transmitted by danger receptors or nociceptors that send alerts to the brain, but they do not send “pain”, because all pain is made by the brain. It is not the bruise on your knee or your broken arm or ankle that the “pain” is coming from. Pain is your brain’s evaluation of information or data, including danger from the detection system that uses such reference points and cognitive data as expectations, previous experience, beliefs, cultural and social norms and sensory data. In responses, the brain produces pain as a signal, based on the information it has and sends out a signal to the body. It is usually fairly accurate, but sometimes does not have enough information or is relying on old information or patterns that are not totally accurate. There are all kinds of examples of our body getting signals that are not quite accurate, such as those mentioned above. However, most of the time pain is a good indicator that tells us not to lift or bend with our injured back, not to walk on our injured foot or to see a doctor or physical therapist to help with healing. The brain can also turn on pain or turn pain up when it receives evidence of danger and in this way is a protective mechanism. For instances, we might get a headache when we anticipate doing something that has previously caused us pain or injury.
Pain is additionally complicated because it is not just in the brain. The receptors or danger detectors that are the eyes of the brain are distributed across all the tissues of the body and form the neural system that is the brains messenger. So, this system is very sensitive to any changes in the body and ready to mobilize the body’s many mechanisms for alert, healing and repair. There are some conditions that can interfere with or inhibit optimal functioning of this system. There are substances that can numb the transmitters and allow severe tissue damage without indication of pain or heightened signals of pain when actual damage is not severe as the pain would indicate. Inflammation in the body, for instance, actually causes pain to be signaled at a sensitivity level that is far greater than what is actually happening in the body haor what would be felt if the inflammation were not present. that is why anti-inflammatories or reducing inflammations can reduce pain, even though the actual conditions, have not changed.
An example of how pain works that made a strong impression on me was a story I heard when I sat next to a Physical Therapist on a plane trip from Seattle to Boston. He explained pain to me this way:
Jared explained - His friend, who was an avid hiker in the Northwest went on a trip to Costa Rica. Since he hiked a lot in areas where there were no trails he was used to little pricks and scraps from bushes and underbrush and knew that is generally was not an indication of serious injury. So, when on a hike in Costa Rica he felt a prick on his ankle, he thought nothing of it. Not too long later, he found his ankle and leg swelling, painful and was unable to walk on it. His guides informed him that he had been bitten by a very deadly snake. He had to be airlifted back to the US and barely survived. It did not deter him from hiking, which he loved. However, on a hike in the Northwest, shortly after this incident he felt a prick similar to what he had felt in Costa Rica and even though he knew there were no deadly snakes to be bitten by, his ankle and leg swelled up and felt very much like it had when he had been bitten by the snake. The brain was going with the most recent data and information it had recently and decided that “the last time we felt this, we almost died” and so there was significant danger involved and sent signals and “pain” replicating that previous circumstances, even though in fact there was no substantial real danger at that time.
The Physical Therapist’s explanation made a strong impression on me and helped me both in understanding pain and understanding how hypnosis can be effective in helping to manage and relieve it. The next question then is, how does hypnosis work with the body and the brain in managing pain? this in no ways means that when we experience pain, we are imagining it, but that the body signals danger and draws from experience, so sometimes the signals do not mean what they seem and that we can take control of those signals to our advantage to help in managing pain.
Hypnosis is actually a heightened state of focus and awareness and is not sleep or an altered state of mind control, as popular belief has led us to believe. During hypnosis the patient is completely aware of what is going on and can stop the process at any time. The client must trust the hypnotist for the process to be effective, but hypnosis is actually a very normal process that occurs in our daily lives. During hypnosis subjects are very responsive to suggestion and this can be used in a positive way by the hypnotist with regard to pain. Relaxation, focused attention, creative imaginary and some hypnotic phenomena are used in hypnosis to help the patient manage and relieve pain, usually very effectively, using the body's own mechanisms.
An article from June 2012, http://theconversation.com/explainer-how-does-hypnosis-relieve-pain-7060 explains the technical way this works with some advanced measurement tools we now are able to use:
Advances in brain function imaging using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scanning techniques have allowed us to see that hypnosis modulates activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, which links the limbic (emotions) and sensory cortical areas of the brain during hypnotic pain relief. This appears to allow sensations that would normally be experienced as painful to no longer have the suffering or negative emotions that would normally be associated with them.
A labor contraction, for example, can be felt as either the most terrifying and painful of sensations or a wonderfully fulfilling experience that tells the mother she is getting closer to her baby. These very different perceptions may be experienced despite the intensity of uterine contractions being identical.
This is really amazing evidence that hypnosis is effective in allowing us to get a handle on pain and better manage and use this amazing system that our body already has in place to help us in dealing with danger, injury and illness and to help keep us safe and in good health. As I hypnotherapist, I recently updated my certifications with advanced training and certification in Medical Hypnosis from the ICBCH. It is so gratifying to help people in dealing with pain and its immense impact on the quality of our lives.
About the Author
Kate Olson, CPC, CHt, is a Life Coach, Clinical Hypnotherapist, NLP Master Practitioner & Certification Trainer, EFT Practitioner and Reiki Master practicing in Seattle at Embrace Change Hypnosis & NLP and Northern Lights Life Coaching .
She offers workshops & classes, as well as, individual and group coaching. Her emphasis is on assisting clients in finding path, purpose and peace. Kate focuses on integration of mind, body, spirit wellness with all of her businesses. It is her mission to help clients find joy through connection, creative expression and change facilitation. Kate is a speaker, writer and radio show host of "Embrace Change with Kate" on Contact Talk Radio, in additional to her private practice. She is passionate about creativity, travel, personal growth and living with joyful purpose. Kate's businesses operate as Dba's under Total Well Resources, LLC.