Does Hypnotherapy Work?

Is there research evidence to suggest hypnotherapy works? If so, for which conditions? Where is more research needed? When isn’t hypnotherapy appropriate?

When might Hypnotherapy help?

Recent research findings suggest three areas:

1. Palliative Care of Cancer Patients - A number of studies published in 2016 suggest hypnotherapy can help here, in particular helping reduce anxiety among breast cancer survivors, help with pain management in head and neck cancer, and as an alternative to anaesthesia for radiology in some young children. While a 2017 review of the effectiveness of clinical hypnotherapy during cancer treatment concluded that it could help with distress, pain, anxiety, fatigue and wound healing.  

This echoes earlier research, including a 2012 review article in Cancer Network, which concluded that clinical hypnosis is a viable supplementary option for cancer patients.

2. Reducing Pain and Anxiety more generally - For example a 2014 review concluded that the evidence suggests hypnosis can help manage chronic pain. A 2016 study of 50 nursing students experiencing serious period pains found that, although ibupfrofen had a more immediate effect, it was hypnotherapy that provided longer lasting pain relief. And a 2012 systematic review in the European Journal of Anaesthesiology observed that hypnosis before medical procedures may be efficient in reducing pain and anxiety. 

3. IBS – A 2016 review of the evidence concluded that medical hypnosis is a safe and complementary technique for use in medical procedures and in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome. This is in line with earlier research. For example a 2014 review of the evidence concluded that hypnotherapy has beneficial short term effects in improving the symptoms of  patients with IBS - and a 2012 review found positive therapeutic effects for children with IBS.   

Where is more research needed?

Giving Up Smoking: The most recent comprehensive review of the evidence here was a  systematic review by the Cochrane Collaboration in 2010. Ths concluded: 'Although it is possible that hypnotherapy could be as effective as counselling treatment there is not enough good evidence to be certain of this.' 

Other Conditions: The Oxford Handbook of Complementary Medicine (OHCM) reports that some studies suggest possible effectiveness but there isn’t enough data available in the following cases: depression, eczema, fibromyalgia, hypertension, being overweight or obese and rheumatic arthritis. 

Where does hypnotherapy not seem to work?

Self hypnosis in particular can have limitations. For instance a 2015 study, involving 680 participants, found that self hypnosis didn't significantly reduce pain during childbirth.

Research Limitations? - There are usually reservations about the quality, consistency and/or scale of the research into hypnotherapy which has been conducted so far. This often leads to the recommendation that well designed trials are needed to confirm the initial findings.

For example the way hypnotherapy is provided may vary from one study to another. In one study it may be provided by an experienced hypnotherapist and in another by self hypnosis, there may or may not be a standard script and either direct or indirect suggestion techniques may be employed. People may also vary in their susceptibility to hypnosis. This makes it difficult to compare like with like. Studies with a small number of participants also tend to be less reliable than those with a larger number  

This is a reasonable caveat. However it is worth noting that organisations like pharmaceutical companies (who arrange significant numbers of randomized control trials, seen as the ‘gold standard’ for medical research) have no commercial interest in funding hypnotherapy research. So we shouldn’t be too surprised if the scale and quality of the research into hypnotherapy has often been limited. Having said this the point remains valid. This is an area where more well designed and consistent research is needed.

When isn’t hypnotherapy appropriate? - The NHS advises you shouldn't use hypnotherapy if you have psychosis or some types of personality disorder.

Conclusions 

  • Hypnotherapy is likely to be helpful for relieving pain and stress for cancer patients, for helping relieve pain and anxiety for some other conditions, and for helping treat the symptoms of IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome).
  • Well designed trials are needed to confirm whether or not it can help a range of other conditions. These include depression, dementia, eczema, fibromyalgia, hypertension, weight loss, rheumatic arthritis and stopping smoking. 
  • Hypnotherapy isn’t appropriate for people with psychosis or some personality disorders. 

Published September 2014. Reviewed and updated by Charlotte Christopherson, March 2017. Next review date February 2020. 

Introduction to Hypnotherapy

Hypnotherapist database