New Scientist ran a feature in April detailing how medical hypnosis has become ‘standard practice’ in hospitals in several countries.
Far from being a medical stunt, it continued, listening to hypnosis recordings has been shown to reduce a patient’s pain and nerves during procedures, and can even mean they need a lower dose of sedatives.
France is among the nations to have embraced the practice, and it has been used to block pain during cancer treatments and even for heart operations.
In some instances, it is enhanced by giving patients virtual reality glasses to watch soothing scenery or to go on a virtual journey, such as into space or walking in woods.
‘People recover better and experience less chronic pain’
Julie Mayon, training and scientific director at the Institut Français d’Hypnose (IFH) in Paris, said: “Hypnosis can make treatments less uncomfortable, as well as reducing pain and anxiety.
“Long term, it can give people a more positive memory of their hospital stay, and the reduction in anxiety helps people recover better, sleep better, and experience less chronic pain, which improves overall quality of life.”
She is quick to point out, however, that hypnosis is not “a profession in itself”.
Rather, she says, it is a discipline that qualified medical practitioners can use as an additional tool. “That is why we only train medical professionals at IFH.”
Photo: Julie Mayon is the training and scientific director at the Institut Français d’Hypnose (IFH) in Paris; Credit: Julie Mayon
A feeling like driving a well-known route
Training can last from seven days for nurses wanting to help patients undergoing uncomfortable changes of dressings, for example, right through to three years for psychologists.
Dr Mayon describes hypnosis as a way of putting people into a state of dissociation similar to the mental absenteeism that many adults experience when driving a well-known route.
“They are doing everything necessary, but are not mentally 100% present,” she said. “That is the state that hypnosis can help patients achieve in hospital.”
She added that, over time, people can learn to put themselves into that state.
“With practice, it can even help people who are frightened of the dentist, especially when the dentist is also trained in hypnosis,” she said.
A relationship of trust between patient and anaesthetist
Hypnosis does not replace other treatments or anaesthetics, but it can help to reduce dosages.
Dr Mayon also underlined that, if the hypnosis is not working effectively, the option to switch to a general anaesthetic, for example, is still open.
Similarly, when hypnosis is offered to pregnant women to help with labour, they can use other techniques alongside it.
“Hypnosis offers increased emotional, psychological and physical comfort, but it does not trap anyone into anything,” Dr Mayon said.
Hypnosis has no side-effects, and does not interact badly with any other medications or treatments. When used during surgery, it does require advance preparation, however.
“The patient has to consent and there has to be a relationship of trust between patient and anaesthetist. They need to have discussed activities the patient enjoys and finds relaxing, for example.”
Hypnotherapy is unregulated in France
Dr Mayon points out that hypnosis generally improves communication between patients and medical professionals because part of their training requires the practitioner to assess the patient’s emotional state before proceeding.
She sounds a warning bell when people search for hypnosis outside of a hospital setting.
“Unfortunately, hypnotherapy is unregulated in France, meaning some people advertising ‘hypnotherapy services’ have no medical qualifications at all, just a few days’ training in hypnosis.”
A small minority, she added, are “complete charlatans”.
She recommends searching a registered database such as the IFH’s to find a qualified professional working in obstetrics, psychology or whatever area the patient requires help with, who is also trained in hypnosis.