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Hypnosis and Pain

I decided to post this video in my blog as I've often suggested it to people who are unsure about whether or not hypnosis 'works'. It's a TV documentary from More4 in the UK, dating from 2006. It includes live footage of a patient undergoing a hernia operation without the use of a general anaesthetic, or any anaesthetics for that matter. Pain is managed by hypnosis. The program also includes discussion and debate about hypnosis and it's use in healthcare, with other examples of it's use in the operating theatre, along with it's benefits in terms of healing and the speed of recovery. All in all it's very enlightening to anyone who is unsure about the validity of hypnosis, especially if they’ve been seeing too much of it's use in entertainment.

A few decades ago the argument over whether or not hypnosis was an altered state of consciousness was at its peak. Some very sound research work seemed to suggest that hypnosis was mostly evidence of 'social compliance', rather than an altered state of consciousness: When hypnotised people were simply behaving as they thought they should, and complying with the instructions of the hypnotist. Whilst this made sense in terms of the research studies, it made little sense to people working with hypnosis in a clinical setting, who regularly worked with people who had misconceptions about hypnosis being like sleep, or unconsciousness, a state where they would have no control. Yet, when hypnotised they did not behave in any of these ways, as they had expected to. Instead, they behaved as people normally do when hypnotised. And of course, as this program shows so wonderfully, it would be very difficult to undergo major surgery without an anaesthetic, and to be free of pain or discomfort through social compliance alone. It's not that such research and theories were 'wrong', they actually were very helpful in developing understanding, but they were incomplete, and seemingly disconnected from hypnosis in a clinical environment.

The debate about an altered state of consciousness has largely subsided in recent years, no doubt in part because we still don't really know quite what a 'normal' state of consciousness is. Unfortunately the disconnection between research into hypnosis and it's clinical application is often still there. There are some practical reasons for this: Researchers need to be able to measure and repeat many aspects of their work. This means working with hypnosis in a standardised way, rather than adapting it to suit the individual, as a clinician would. It means focusing on the depth of hypnosis, which is more likely to be unhelpful in a clinical setting, unless working with pain. It also means working with highly hypnotisable subjects, something that would be impractical in healthcare settings. This last factor is particularly significant, as it may cause some research results to be inappropriate in the context of hypnosis used in the general population. Ultimately, research into hypnosis is a fascinating subject, but we do need to be careful when considering how findings relate to the use of hypnosis within a healthcare setting.

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