Controlling Pain with Hypnosis: Part 1

What an amazing concept – that surgery can be carried out under hypnosis, using no chemical anesthetic at all. It’s definitely been done. Breasts have been surgically removed and limbs amputated painlessly; impacted wisdom teeth have been taken out with little difficulty and no drugs.

It’s exciting and slightly unbelievable, isn’t it? What’s more, although it might be more time consuming than using chemical anesthetics, there are very definite advantages to using hypnosis for pain control.

Benefits of Hypnosis For Pain Control

For one thing, there are no toxic effects, unlike virtually every drug-based form of anesthetic. The shock to the system is much less. The patient’s protective systems stay functioning throughout the procedure, so if they need a drink of water they can safely have one.

If they vomit or need to swallow or spit out blood they can go right ahead. When they’re in recovery they’ll notice if things are too hot, too cold, twisted or uncomfortable. Any pain and discomfort after the operation can be easily relieved, and general recovery is likely to be swifter.

So if the advantages are so obvious, and clinically proven, why the heck are we still using chemical anesthetics and inducing complete unconsciousness for 99% of all operations?

Unfortunately it seems that less than one in every five of us is capable of reaching the depth of analgesia in hypnosis required for painless major surgery. So this phenomenon, while a fascinating medical curiosity, remains just that, and it’s not looked on as a real alternative to more orthodox anesthesia.

While that might be frustrating, hypnosis does still have a major role to play in general pain control and pain management, and this is where most clinical hypnotists come in. We may not be able to produce complete anesthesia (the loss of all sensory perception) except in very rare subjects, but we can certainly help nearly all patients experience various levels of analgesia (the loss of the perception of pain).

We‘re often asked to help with anxiety about pain, like people who are terrified of dental procedures, injections, or upcoming surgery. We’re also often approached about the management of pain, perhaps post operatively, or in relation to chronic pain or long term illness.

I need to stick in a health warning here. Obviously it can be a great relief to clients to find their pain massively reduced or gone. However pain, while unpleasant, is a very effective safety mechanism, alerting us to move away from dangerous and potentially damaging objects and situations, or telling us that there’s something wrong that we need to deal with. It’s this latter situation that we need to be careful about.

Removing the perception of pain which has not been diagnosed and may be an important indicator of a serious medical condition could be extremely dangerous. However, predictable or chronic pain, assuming we know the underlying reason for it and the client is receiving the appropriate treatment,can be safely reduced or dismissed altogether, with only positive results.

The Hidden Observer

An interesting phenomenon which is still debated is the existence of what has been called “the hidden observer”. This is not only related to pain control in hypnosis, but is particularly relevant in this situation.

The term “hidden observer” was coined by Ernest Hilgard, an American professor at Stanford University who spent many years researching hypnosis and was particularly interested in the area of pain control.

While demonstrating hypnotic “deafness” to a class of students, Hilgard was asked whether perhaps the now “deaf” student, could perhaps hear at a deeper, unconscious level, even though he demonstrated no awareness of the sounds around him.

Hilgard decided to test this theory by using an ideo-motor response which indicated that indeed the student had been able to hear everything that was going on. Under hypnosis he was able to recount every sound made and word spoken, even though he had shown no reaction to sound at the time – even very loud, sudden noises that had been made right next to his ear.

This raised the question as to whether a subject hypnotized to feel no pain, was still aware of pain at some level. A series of sophisticated experiments followed, and demonstrated through automatic talking, writing and ideo-motor responses, that in fact pain was reported at normal levels, even though the subject experienced little or no pain consciously.

Hilgard and his wife came up with the concept of a “hidden observer” – a part of the mind which is always aware of the pain being experienced by the hypnotized person even when the person reports no conscious pain at all. The pain is still present, but hypnosis appears to circumvent the interpretation of that pain.

It seems that the pain is experienced as somehow disassociated from the subject, or irrelevant and unimportant. The theory of the hidden observe lends itself to many hypnotic situations where the subject is often aware at a deep level of everything that is happening, yet can only recall the details when taken back into a deep hypnotic trance.

Controlling Pain with Hypnosis Part 1 Conclusion

The whole subject of hypnosis for pain control is a fascinating area, which is still not entirely understood. Maybe one day we’ll discover enough about it to really be able to offer it as a genuine alternative to drugs for the vast majority of people. It’s a huge area of study, but hopefully I’ve given you a useful background summary here.

In part 2 of Controlling Pain with Hypnosis I’ll outline some of the techniques that can be used for hypnotic pain control. If you found this article interesting you should love the next one!