Hypnotherapy provides effective pain relief

Around 30% of the UK live with daily, chronic pain, that’s around 28 million people according to research carried out in 2016.

For most of these sufferers, opiates are offered as the main treatment for their pain.) In America opiod prescriptions have quadrupled since the turn of the century, but the research shows that the relief offered by opiate medications actually isn’t so great.

The National Council for Hypnotherapy says: “Hypnotherapy is often highly effective in dealing with pain management.

In a study at Stanford University School of Medicine in 2016 scientists scanned the brains of 57 people during guided hypnosis sessions.  They found several changes that occur while the subjects were in hypnosis.  These changes included a greater connectivity between the brain’s executive-control network and the insula, a grape-sized region deeper in the brain that helps us control what’s going on in the body, including processing pain.

Further to this, it is becoming more widely recognised that the mind plays a role in the experience of pain.  Learning skills to change habitual thought patterns around chronic pain can significantly reduce a person’s distress and improve their quality of life.  Negative emotions can amplify the experience of pain, and a positive outlook can ease it.

Self hypnosis can help.  Hypnosis techniques can be taught to clients by an NCH therapist to help them manage chronic pain.  Patients suffering from a range of conditions including fibromyalgia, back disorders and pain from trauma such as car accidents or workplace injuries can learn to control their pain through practicing self-hypnosis.

 “Sleep was totally key,” says Deborah Gray, 53, whose chronic neck pain has disappeared since she began using guided imagery and hypnotherapy to fall asleep. 

When seeing a therapist for chronic pain, it is essential that the pain is checked out by a GP first for a formal diagnosis.  After you’ve had an assessment contact a hypnotherapist near you by using the NCH directory.


The newest healthy living trend: Sleep


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Insomnia is thought to affect one in 3 people in the UK, with sufferers finding it difficult to get to sleep, having interrupted sleep, waking early, and having difficulty concentrating and feeling tired and irritable during the day. With the … Continue reading

Review of Evidence-Based Hypnotherapy: May 2010 Mega-Research-Snippet

Which Forms of Hypnotherapy are Evidence-Based?

Hypnotherapy as Empirically-Supported Treatment (EST)

Ratings using Chambless & Hollon (1998) criteria reviewed by David M. Wark (2008)

Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2009  Reprinted from The Hypnotherapy Journal Spring 2009

I beg farther to remark, if my theory and pretensions, as to the nature, cause, and extent of the phenomena of [hypnotism] have none of the fascinations of the transcendental to captivate the lovers of the marvellous, the credulous and enthusiastic, which the pretensions and alleged occult agency of the mesmerists have, still I hope my views will not be the less acceptable to honest and sober-minded men, because they are all level to our comprehension, and reconcilable with well-known physiological and psychological principles.  – James Braid, Hypnotic Therapeutics, 1853

One of the most useful articles to be published recently was arguably Wark’s review of those studies on hypnotherapy that were rated as meeting the Chambless & Hollon (1998) criteria for “empirically-supported treatments” in the field of psychology, known as ESTs for short.  It may not surprise many NCH members to know that when the research literature on psychotherapy was previously reviewed by a task force of nineteen psychologists led by Prof. Dianne Chambless most of the psychological therapies identified as “empirically-supported” (formerly termed “empirically-validated”) tended to be specific forms of cognitive and/or behaviour therapy (CBT).  Most forms of psychotherapy, ranging from the more controversial and pseudoscientific ones to some of the more “respectable” and mainstream approaches, do not meet these strict criteria for empirical support.  However, one study was identified which demonstrated that cognitive-behavioural hypnotherapy (CBH) was “probably efficacious” for weight loss in obese clients.  In this respect, hypnotherapy might (tentatively) be said to have garnered more compelling evidence for its efficacy than many other modalities of psychological therapy, apart from the cognitive and/or behavioural treatments and some brief psychodynamic approaches. 

            However, over the past decade, many additional studies of a high quality have been published which provide support for the efficacy of hypnotherapy, including meta-analyses and systematic reviews which collate data from multiple studies to form a more general picture of the research findings in this area.  David Wark’s review entitled ‘What we can do with hypnosis: a brief note’ identifies  over thirty additional studies on hypnotherapy which he rates using the revised Chambless & Hollon (1998) criteria for either “possible”, “probable”, or “specific” empirically-supported treatments, depending upon the nature of the evidence available (see the explanations below).  I have compiled this information into a new table which you will find underneath.  Of course, these are not all the possible applications of hypnotherapy, simply the ones which currently have the strongest empirical support, based on Wark’s rating using established criteria for research quality.  More studies are published every year which potentially meet these criteria and might be included on a future list.

            I think it might be observed that certain hypnotherapy treatments for certain types of pain, anxiety, and weight loss are supported by the strongest evidence at present, by this standard.  In total, three studies (anxiety due to asthma, public speaking, and taking a test) provide good evidence for the efficacy of hypnotherapy as a treatment for anxiety.  Assen Alladin’s recent study which provides support for the use of hypnosis in the treatment of depression is rated as meeting the “possibly” efficacious criteria.  Most of the other studies provide evidence relating to the treatment of acute or chronic pain, and certain stress-related or psychosomatic medical conditions such as insomnia, migraine and IBS.  Wark even finds one study on hypnotherapy for smoking cessation which meets the criteria for “possibly efficacious”, an area where well-designed research has previously been lacking. 

            This overview is consistent with a general trend in the literature, since the Victorian era, which tends to point toward hypnotherapy showing most promise in the treatment of anxiety, insomnia, pain management, and several stress-related medical conditions, with mixed findings in relation to its use for the treatment of habits and addictions such as over-eating, smoking, and alcohol abuse.  For example, a committee of experts commissioned by the British Medical Association concluded in 1892 that,

The Committee are of opinion that as a therapeutic agent hypnotism is frequently effective in relieving pain, procuring sleep, and alleviating many functional [i.e., psycho-somatic] ailments.

However, we can now go beyond those early clinical observations and primitive experiments and provide an overview of the therapeutic usefulness of hypnotherapy based on modern research design meeting the highest standards of quality. 

 “Specific” empirically supported treatments
1. Anxiety about asthma attack   Brown, 2007
2. Headaches and migraine Relaxation + image modification > wait list control Hammond, 2007
“Effective” empirically-supported treatments
3. Cancer pain   Syrjala et al., 1992
4. Distress during surgery Hypnosis reduces distress and pain > controls Lang et al., 2006
5. Surgery pain (adult) Self-hypnosis reduces drug use > attention control Lang et al., 1996
6. Surgery pain (child) Hypnosis reduces pain + hospital time > control Lambert, 1996
7. Weight reduction Hypnosis + CBT > CBT, differences increase over time Kirsch, 1996
“Possible” empirically-supported treatments
8. Acute pain (adult)   Patterson & Jensen, 2003
9. Acute pain (children) Hypnosis > distraction for bone marrow aspiration Zeltzer & LaBaron, 1982
10. Anorexia Staged treatment with hypnosis > same without hypnosis Baker & Nash, 1987
11. Anxiety about public speaking Hypnosis > CBT Schoenberger et al., 1997
12. Anxiety about taking a test Self-hypnosis>discussion control Stanton, 1994
13. Asthma Hypnosis>attention control Ewer & Stewart, 1986
14. Bed wetting Suggestion with or without hypnosis > wait list control Edwards & Van der Spuy, 1986
15. Bulimia Hypnosis = CBT > wait list Griffiths et al., 1996
16. Chemotherapy distress Hypnosis>conversation + antiemetic medication Jacknow et al., 1994
17. Cystic fibrosis Self-hypnosis>wait list control Belsky & Khanna, 1994
18. Depression Hypnosis enhances CBT Alladin & Alibhai, 2007
19. Duodenal ulcer relapse Hypnosis + medication > medication only Colgan et al., 1988
20. Fibromyalgia Hypnosis > physical therapy for subjective symptoms Haanen et al., 1991
21. Haemorrhage Preoperative suggestion reduces blood flow Enqvist et al., 1995
22. High blood-pressure Hypnosis > wait list in reducing BP long-term Gay, 2007
23. Hip or knee osteoarthritis pain Hypnosis = relaxation > wait list control Gay et al., 2002
24. Insomnia (primary) Hypnosis + CBT > medication long-term Graci & Hardie, 2007
25. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) Hypnosis > psychotherapy Whorwell et al., 1984
26. Nausea & hyperemesis Hypnotic-like relaxation > control Lyles et al., 1982
27. Obstetrics Apgar score Hypnosis associated with higher Apgar score Harmon et al., 1990
28. Obstetrics pain Hypnosis shortens labour and reduces analgesic use Jenkins & Prichard, 1983
29. Smoking cessation Hypnosis or relaxation > wait list controls for good subjects Schubert, 1983
30. Trauma recovery Desensitisation = hypnosis = psychodynamic therapy > control Brom et al., 1989
31. Wart removal Suggestion with or without hypnosis > control or medication Spanos et al., 1990

These ratings are derived from the review published by Wark (2008), in which the references and criteria are given in full.  In brief, the main criteria for the ratings are those set by Chambless & Hollon (1998), which they define roughly as follows but see their article for a more specific and detailed account of the criteria.


A treatment is “possibly” empirically-supported if peer-reviewed studies meet the following minimum criteria.  Studies should normally contain samples of at least 25 subjects who are randomly assigned to treatment and control groups, i.e., the study is a randomised control trial (RCT).  There is a treatment manual or equivalent (such as a hypnosis script) so that the treatment can be replicated in other studies.  Treatment must be conducted upon a specific condition which has been adequately assessed, and adequate outcome measures must be used which are subject to suitable statistical analysis.  The outcome must essentially show the treatment to be significantly more effective than a placebo or no-treatment control group, or equivalent to another empirically-supported treatment.


A treatment is termed empirically-supported as being “effective” if statistically significant superiority to control group measures have been replicated with completely independent samples or by independent research teams, and data supporting the treatment in question must be shown to predominate if there are conflicting data from other studies.


A treatment can be considered empirically-supported as “specific” (i.e., better than “non-specific” treatment) if it has shown statistically significant superiority to a placebo (“sham”) therapy or another psychological therapy in at least two independent studies.


Bolocofsky, D.N., Spinler, D., & Coulthard-Morris, L. (1985).  ‘Effectiveness of hypnosis as an adjunct to behavioral weight management’,  Journal of Clinical Psychology, 41.

Chambless, D.L., & Hollon, S.  ‘Defining empirically supported therapies’, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 66.

Task Force on Promotion and Dissemination of Psychological Procedures. ‘Training in and dissemination of empirically validated psychologist treatments: report and recommendations.’ Clin Psychol 1995;48:3–23.

Chambless DL, Sanderson WC, Shoham V, Bennett Johnson S, Pope KS, Crits-Christoph P, et al. ‘An update on empirically validated therapies.’ Clin Psychol 1996;49:5–18.

Chambless DL, Baker MJ, Baucom DH, Beutler LE, Calhoun KS, Crits-Christoph P, et al. ‘Update on empirically validated therapies, II.’ Clin Psychol 1998;51:3–16.

Wark, David M.  (2008). ‘What we can do with hypnosis: a brief note’, American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, July 2008

July Research Snippet: Competing Theories of Hypnosis

The Conditioning & Inhibition Theory of Hypnosis

In previous snippets, we’ve looked at factors in the typology of suggestion, some clinical outcome studies, etc., this month I’d like to draw attention to some research attempting to support a comprehensive theory of hypnosis.  As the psychologist Kurt Lewin famously remarked: “Nothing is as practical as a good theory.”  That phrase came to mind when reading Alfred Barrios’ recent series of articles which concisely and systematically outline a relatively simple “conditioning and inhibition” theory of hypnosis (Barrios, 2001), which recently led to an exchange with Steven Jay Lynn relating to the similarities and differences between Barrios’ theory and the influential “socio-cognitive” theory of hypnosis. 

            Barrios’ theory ultimately derives, I think, from the “cortical inhibition” theory of hypnosis which crowned Pavlov’s physiological research on animals at the turn of last century – a theory further developed by Platonov and other Soviet hypnotherapists.  Anyway, Barrios does an admirable job of carefully spelling out his modern variation, with intermittent references to supporting research data.  In a nutshell, Barrios draws on a revised form of conditioning theory to describe hypnosis as a method for reinforcing the subject’s tendency to progressively fade out (“inhibit”) intrusive thoughts and sensations in a way that heightens their sensitivity to learned associations between words, such as hypnotic suggestions, and physiological responses such as emotions.  From this point of view, words, such as verbal suggestions, function as stimuli which in turn evoke “cognitive stimuli” (ideas and images) in a way that triggers hypnotic responses.  Barrios’ use of behavioural learning theory obviously has the potential to highlight certain overlaps between the theory and practice of hypnosis and behaviour therapy. 

Barrios’ theory consists of the following seven hypotheses, divided into three groups,

A. Hypnotic induction

1. “Hypnotic induction is a conditioning process.”

2. “The response conditioned during hypnotic induction is an inhibitory set, a set which tends to inhibit stimuli incompatible with the response suggested by the hypnotist.”

3. “A positive response to a suggestion will induce within the responding person a more or less generalised increase in the normally existent tendency to respond to succeeding suggestions.”

B. Explanation of hypnotic phenomena

4. “A suggestion produces the desired response by first evoking a cognitive stimulus which is associated with that process.”

5. “The inhibitory set facilitates the suggested response by inhibiting stimuli competing with the cognitive stimulus.”

C. Post-hypnotic suggestion

6. “Suggestion leads to behaviour change by a form of higher-order conditioning called C-C [cognitive-cognitive] conditioning.”

7. “Hypnosis facilitates the C-C conditioning produced by suggestion.”

Barrios published two subsequent articles, the first of which explores the relationship between his “conditioning and inhibition” theory and four other modern theories of hypnosis: sociocognitive theory (Spanos/Lynn), Neo-dissociation (Hilgard), response expectancy (Kirsch), and Milton Erickson’s approach (Barrios, 2007).  The second reviews the possible benefits and applications of the theory to understanding phenomena such as the placebo effect, improving the effectiveness of hypnotic induction, improving post-hypnotic suggestions, and the development of Barrios’ therapeutic technique called Self-Programmed Control (Barrios, 2007b).

Comparison Between Theories

In the current edition of Contemporary Hypnosis, Steven Jay Lynn and Sean O’Hagen have responded in some detail to Barrios’ comparison between the conditioning and inhibition and sociocognitive theories of hypnosis.  

Sociocognitive theories reject the traditional view that hypnotic experiences require the presence of an altered state of consciousness.  Rather, the same social and cognitive variables that determine mundane complex social behaviours are said to determine hypnotic responses and experiences. (Lynn & O’Hagan, 2009)

They praise Barrios for providing a systematic and comprehensive account of his theory and its practical implications.  Indeed, contrary to Barrios’, they conclude that his theory is itself one of several falling under the broad “sociocognitive” umbrella term.  However, while endorsing some of his points, they disagree with others, citing several research studies in support of their own position.  In particular,

  1. Barrios emphasises the power of hypnotist prestige but sociocognitive researchers have generally found the qualities of the hypnotist to be of less importance than the qualities of the subject, e.g., their level of motivation, expectations, and imaginative capacity.
  2. Following Spanos, Barrios emphasises the power of “goal directed fantasies”, or mental imagery, in evoking hypnotic responses but, according to Lynn, research has failed to show that imagery alone can account for hypnotic responses without the aid of factors such as motivation and expectation.
  3. Barrios, like many hypnotherapists, naturally assumes that hypnotic suggestions are more effective when presented in order of difficulty, giving the subject an increasing confidence in their ability to respond. However, Lynn cites evidence from experimental studies showing that this is not the case and subjects respond just as well when suggestions are given in descending order of difficulty.
  4. They do, however, find support for Barrios’ contention that subjects increase in responsiveness to genuine suggestion tests after first being duped into believing they are hypnotised, e.g., by surreptitiously playing quiet music in the background while suggesting that they will hallucinate the sound of music, etc.
  5. They raise doubts over Barrios’ claim that some induction techniques induce hypnosis more “deeply” than others. Research has consistently failed to demonstrate much difference between different induction techniques.
  6. Moreover, the increase in suggestibility following hypnotic induction techniques is around 20% on average, which seems to show that the presence of a hypnotic state (“trance”), even if such a thing did exist, would be far less important to hypnotism than other factors such as the personality of the subject, their attitudes, and the type of suggestions given.

It’s truly fascinating to observe these debates between researchers from different theoretical traditions because they highlight the pros and cons of their respective points of view.  This is research in action; the competition between contrasting hypotheses, appealing to their respective supporting evidence.  It’s through this kind of dialogue that genuine progress is achieved in hypnotic research and we work our way gradually closer to an accurate and comprehensive theory of hypnosis and hypnotherapy. 


Barrios, A. A. (2001). A Theory of Hypnosis based on Principles of Conditioning & Inhibition. Contemporary Hypnosis , 18 (4), 163-203.

Barrios, A. A. (2007). Commentary on a Theory of Hypnosis based on Principles of Conditioning & Inhibition, Part I: Contrasts with Other Perspectives & Supporting Evidence. Contemporary Hypnosis , 24 (3), 109-122.

Barrios, A. A. (2007b). Commentary on a Theory of Hypnosis based on Principles of Conditioning & Inhibition, Part II: Benefits of the Theory. Contemporary Hypnosis , 24 (3), 123-138.

Lynn, S. J., & O’Hagan, S. (2009). The Sociocognitive and Conditioning and Inhibition Theories of Hypnosis. Contemporary Hypnosis , 26 (2), 121-125.