Recent international research has compelling evidence that clinical hypnosis may be a viable way to treat back pain. The research has found that hypnosis is a safe, low-cost treatment, and that combined with pain management education can help people overcome chronic pain without resorting to surgery or drugs.

The first step for taking hypnosis treatment is overcoming misconceptions about what it is, that have been perpetuated on screen for decades. Clinical hypnosis has more in common with meditation practice and psychology than with comedy or magic acts by Hollywood. Like meditation, hypnosis is about getting beyond the loud chatter of the conscious mind to bring the subject into deep state of relaxation.

A professional, clinical hypnotherapist will make a client comfortable, and ease them into a specific state of focussed awareness through an induction process. Once the brain has reached this specific point, the hypnotherapist can communicate directly to the subconscious. This is when the mind is more open to taking on suggestions that will benefit the clients health or minimise the pain response occurring in the brain.

One study published in the Journal of Pain recruited 100 people with back pain to see if hypnosis made a difference to treatment outcomes. They put half of the research subjects through a series of hypnotherapy and pain management education sessions. The control group only received pain management education. Those that received hypnosis as part of their pain management program demonstrated promising results in the short to medium term. Researchers are intrigued. The study is now moving to MRI scans to better understand what is happening in subjects brains under hypnosis and see the mechanisms that ease pain as they work.

The study was conducted by an international team consisting of researchers from the University of NSW, City University of Sao Paulo, the University of Washington and NeuRA, a not-for-profit research centre based in Sydney. Associate Professor James McAuley of NeuRA has been quoted saying that hypnosis “can help reduce pain intensity, disability, and catastrophising of pain by those receiving the combined treatment.”

It appears that through hypnosis, clinical hypnotherapists can target the way the human brain processes pain on physical and emotional levels.

Clinical hypnosis is an attractive treatment option. It is a safe process rather than an invasive surgical procedure requiring physical recovery. It does rely on drugs that also come with uncomfortable side effects and the risk of dependence.

While we have not reached a stage where there is consensus in the medical community that hypnosis should be a premier treatment for back pain, it is certainly being taken seriously. Appropriate research is being undertaken into this area of pain treatment. If it can be proven to work for back pain, clinical hypnotherapy may also prove useful for childbirth, quitting smoking and weight loss, although studies have shown mixed results in these areas.

In the future, the treatment of back pain may look remarkably different to what we experience today. Instead of rounds of prescription drugs, we may receive rounds of hypnosis that change the way we experience pain from within the brain itself.