Hypnosis spells relief

Long misunderstood, this technique gains respect as a tool to manage pain and help patients change behavior.

August 19, 2005|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff

When Marija Trieschman gave birth to her daughter three years ago, she felt no pain. But it wasn't a drug that helped her cope. She credits hypnosis.

Trieschman, a horse trainer who uses herbal remedies and other alternative therapies, began attending twice-a-week hypnotism classes when she was three months pregnant. They were held at the home of a friend trained in a California-based practice known as "HypnoBirthing."

At her Harwood home, Trieschman practiced hypnosis on herself every day for six months, and when she finally delivered at Anne Arundel Medical Center, she was able to focus so intently on her breathing that she put the pain aside.

"You get into this mental state of peace," said Trieschman, 40. "My body just took over and let it happen. There was absolutely no pain at all."

Long regarded as a fringe therapy, hypnosis is now getting what advocates say is well-deserved attention. Doctors are studying its effectiveness at Stanford University and Mayo Clinic and using it to speed surgical recoveries at prestigious teaching hospitals such as Yale, Harvard and New York's Mount Sinai.

The studies and other hypnosis issues will be up for discussion today and tomorrow at the American Psychological Association's annual convention in Washington.

As a therapy, hypnosis has been around for well over a century. It's most commonly applied to help people quit smoking, curb their eating, manage anxiety, ease pain and combat ailments ranging from alcoholism to bed wetting.

"There are about 3,000 ways to use hypnosis," said Victor Fitterman, a clinical social worker and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who uses hypnosis as director of the Maryland Group Faculty Practice.

"It's catching on, but it is still one of the least understood and least used therapeutic tools available," added Marty Sapp, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Sapp, who has hypnotized patients for 17 years, plans to attend the APA meeting to discuss his analysis of the effectiveness of hypnosis on a group of students being treated for irrational expectations.

He found that hypnosis combined with cognitive therapy worked better than cognitive therapy alone. But as with most forms of therapy, the patient has to be open to hypnosis, he said.

"For motivated people, it does tend to be effective," he said.

According to an APA survey, psychologists see pain management as the most fruitful avenue for future hypnosis therapy. Several studies have already shown that cancer patients treated with a combination of traditional therapy and hypnosis reported less pain than with traditional treatment alone.

"Pain is a hot area of research right now," said Steven Lynn, a psychologist at the State University of New York at Binghamton who supervised the survey.

The word hypnosis, loosely translated, means "sleep" and comes from Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep. But some experts say that definition is misleading. For example, UM's Fitterman and other researchers note that people under hypnosis remain aware of their surroundings and in control of mind and body.

Sessions can last anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour or two. During that period, experts say, hypnotized patients are able to limit distractions, focus better and become more receptive to suggestions directed primarily at the unconscious mind. "It's not sleep. You can't be made to do things you don't want to do," Fitterman said.

Fitterman has been using hypnosis since the mid-1980s, when he coaxed a University of Maryland psychiatrist, now retired, to let him attend classes on hypnosis for medical school students. The classes are no longer held, but Fitterman says he has used hypnosis ever since to help people quit smoking, lose weight, deal with stress, manage chronic pain and stop biting their nails.

Myths got in the way

The trancelike state of hypnosis is similar to the trance someone experiences when he's absorbed in a good movie or a song, Fitterman said. People can forget some experiences while under hypnosis, but only if they are willing to forget them, he said.

"You won't forget something you're not willing to forget," he declared.

He said hypnotism should be used more for pain relief in hospitals, particularly for cancer patients. "There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about hypnosis, and I think that's held things back," Fitterman said.

For many doctors and would-be patients, hypnotism still suffers from the image created by stage-show theatrics: the subject who stares at a swinging pocketwatch, falls into a trance and then clucks like a chicken.

Legally and medically, the image of hypnosis also suffered in the 1980s, when hypnotized children were coaxed into creating false memories that resulted in wild and unfounded accusations of sexual abuse against child-care providers.

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