Hypnosis Heals

Long considered by many the stock in trade of charlatans, hypnosis in fact can relieve the anxieties of patients in the midst of difficult treatment or about to undergo surgery, according to a sizable database of cases. A new study takes those benefits one step further, suggesting that hypnosis can actually speed the healing of damaged tissue.

"The first thing you have to do is get past the myths and misconceptions about clinical hypnosis," says Carol Ginandes '69, Ph.D., clinical instructor in psychology in the department of psychiatry and the lead investigator of the study. "It's not used for entertainment. There are no Svengali-like figures in power-dominant relationships. It's not a sleep state or something that someone can make you do. It's a state of heightened, focused attention that we can all shift into very naturally."

Mesmeric healing, circa the 1790s
Illustration courtesy of Carol Ginandes

According to Ginandes, an attending psychologist at McLean Hospital, people can reach this hypnotic state by concentrating on just about anything: a sound, a photograph, the feel of your muscles. Hypnotherapists make appropriate hypnotic suggestions to clients in this receptive frame of mind. "We don't yet understand the mechanisms by which these suggestions are transplanted by the mind into the language of the body," says Ginandes, "but let's say someone is a smoker. When he's in a hypnotic state, I could suggest that perhaps he's going to find himself craving cigarettes less and less over a period of time. If he's ready to quit smoking, that suggestion will be planted at a deep level in his mind, like seeds planted beneath the soil rather than scattered over the top, helping him tap into some useful physical and psychological resources."

Ginandes's first clinical trial of tissue healing took place several years ago, when she tested whether hypnosis could accelerate the healing of broken bones. Reasoning that many fracture victims would be otherwise healthy people, free of treatments or medications for other conditions, she found 12 patients with nondisplaced fractures, screened them to exclude those with pre-existing conditions that might affect bone healing, and divided those who remained into two groups. All the patients received casts and standard orthopedic care, but six also received a series of hypnotherapy sessions, which included suggestions meant to target and accelerate their particular stage of healing, and audiotapes to take home that reinforced the sessions. When the study's radiologist—who did not know which patients had received hypnosis—reviewed the X-rays, the hypnotized patients showed more rapid healing. Six weeks after fracture, the hypnosis group had healed to an extent that would normally take eight and a half weeks.

Ginandes's second study, carried out with Patricia Brooks of the Union Institute and published this year in the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, took 18 women, all of whom were having medically recommended breast reduction surgery (again, a population of otherwise healthy people who had received no other treatment for their condition) and divided them into three groups of six. The first group received eight hypnotherapy sessions, employing a complex array of suggestions that targeted specific aspects of the healing process at different stages, like decreasing inflammation, repairing wounds to soft tissue, and avoiding scar tissue. The second group had an equal number of sessions with a psychologist who gave emotional support but no hypnotic intervention. The third group received only standard postoperative care.

Nurses examined the surgical wounds over seven postoperative weeks, without knowing to which of the groups patients belonged. They judged that the surgical wounds of the group receiving hypnosis healed faster than those receiving only supportive attention, who in turn healed faster than the group with only standard postoperative care. Statistically, the differences were so large that they would have occurred by chance less than once in a thousand cases. A team of doctors who studied digital photographs of the wounds made judgments in the same direction, although not at a statistically significant level.

"This is still just the beginning of the story," says Ginandes. "The bottom line is that the field of hypnosis is lagging in clinical trials far behind what we know to be true clinically. There's a lot of anecdotal evidence that mind-body healing is a true phenomenon, but the challenge is to prove it in a scientifically acceptable way."

~Jerry Shine


Carol Ginandes e-mail address: carol_ginandes@hms.harvard.edu


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