Hypnotherapy can help to relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome over the long term, according to a new British study that followed patients for up to six years after they learned the technique.
Nearly three quarters of the more than 200 irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) patients studied responded well after being given hypnotherapy instruction, reporting fewer symptoms and needing less medication.
Sessions were one hour for up to 12 weeks, and then the patients received a tape so they could perform the hypnotherapy on themselves.
Those who responded had significant improvement in symptoms which can include abdominal pain, bloating and bowel problems when compared to the severity before they learned hypnotherapy. And for over 80 percent of the initial responders, the relief lasted.
Hypnotherapy reduces pain
IBS is an extremely common gastrointestinal disorder, accounting for half the patient load of gastroenterologists, the specialists who treat such disorders. IBS symptoms also include constipation or diarrhea or alternate bouts of both.
Symptoms do not always respond to conventional treatment, which may include special diets, agents to bulk up the stools, antispasmodic agents to relax the intestines, and even antidepressants, which are thought to work by boosting the hormone serotonin in the gut and therefore reducing abdominal pain.
Hypnotherapy does seem to work, although it cannot be pinpointed exactly how. “Certainly, we have shown in lab studies that hypnosis alters motility or muscle movement in the gut and the sensitivity of the gut lining, both of which are implicated in producing IBS symptoms,” says Wendy Gonsalkorale, a researcher at the University Hospital of South Manchester. “So there is a real physical effect here.”
“Hypnotherapy can also produce alteration in the immune response” she says. “And pain relief can occur at the level of the brain, with the brain learning to ignore incoming pain messages.”
“We also emphasize that the patient is developing control over the gut and not the other way around, and this is probably also a crucial factor in how the patient improves,” she says.
Other studies have shown similar benefits of hypnotherapy.
In the current study, those who responded to the hypnotherapy also reported lower levels of anxiety and depression, although the improvement tailed off over time.
Patients who responded well said they took fewer drugs and did not need to see their doctors as frequently after receiving the hypnotherapy instruction. Before instruction, about 67 percent of patients were on medication, but during the follow-up only 37 percent of responders were on medication, but nearly 56 percent of non responders were.
The continued improvement in symptoms was not associated with whether the responders continued to practice the hypnotherapy at home, as suggested. But 85 percent of the responders admitted that they did continue the sessions on their own.
Experts in the United States reported that gastroenterologists are generally open to the suggestion of using hypnotherapy. Some routinely suggest it to patients.
“I thought the study was extremely interesting,” says Dr. Lucinda Harris, an associate professor of medicine at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center. The findings may demonstrate that “patients probably need a multifaceted approach.”
“The only shortcoming really is there is no control group,” says Dr. Steven Field, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine and a private practice gastroenterologist in New York City.
“It comes as no surprise that patients who responded are still responding even now” he says. “Some are practicing the technique on a conscious or subconscious level.”
He also added that hypnotherapy is “another mode for a condition that is very frustrating for both the patient and the physician.”