Hypnotherapy for chronic pain?

Chronic pain is insidious. It invades every corner of your life. It is challenging, eroding.

I know this, as I have suffered chronic pain for nearly 20 years. I had encephalitis which left me with brain damage and problems with my sight which resulted in constant pain in my head. It varies in intensity, but I have not experienced a completely pain-free day since 23 February 2001.

At first, I did not do anything when the pain was bad, I lay in a darkened room and waited for it to pass, just as I would have done with a headache before. But it did not elapse. The result was I no longer had a life – yet I knew I needed to find a way to cope. 

I am not alone in living with this crippling condition. A recent survey looking at data from 19 separate studies surveying 140,000 adults came to the conclusion that approximately 28 million adults in the UK, have some kind of chronic pain. ‘Chronic pain’ is defined as pain that has affected the individual for more than three months. Around 62% of those suffering were over 75. At that age, increase in pain might be expected, but quality of life at any age is important. This is especially true when younger people within those statistics are trying to hold down a job.

NICE (The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) have released new guidelines for the treatment of chronic pain. They feel there is ‘little or no evidence’ that painkillers help with that quality of life issues that I was battling with all those years ago. There are concerns about the harm caused by long term use of pain killers from paracetamol to ketamine – and of course the addictive risk of such medication.

Their suggestion is for GPs to prescribe exercise and acupuncture rather than painkillers. The pharmaceutical preference is often to prescribe certain types of antidepressant which have a pain-reducing element.  I was prescribed one of the tricyclic family of antidepressants to help me manage my chronic pain all those years ago. And while they certainly helped me sleep, I was left drowsy and it ultimately led to dependence on them, longing for that moment each day when I could take my tablet. When I did eventually stop my antidepressant treatment, the withdrawal symptoms were, quite frankly, hell.

I decided I did not want to live my life dependent on a tablet and living a somewhat disassociated life due to the effects of the medication. When I began to come off them, which I did gradually, I stopped sleeping, felt wretched and was in severe pain. Strangely, the palms of my hands itched so badly that I had to wear gloves in bed as I was tearing my skin and making it bleed from the appalling itching. As I write this I find myself stopping to scratch my palms because the memory of the sensation is so strong. My withdrawal had such a severe effect on me, I would leap out of bed in the night shouting, ‘I have forgotten to take my tablets’, so etched in my subconscious was the reliance upon those pills.

The NHS website focuses very much upon exercise to help with pain. This is of course because we release endorphins when we exercise that act like natural opiates on the body, which is all very well. But I wonder if anyone involved in the NICE guidelines that have filtered down into the NHS website have actually lived with chronic pain? Saying ‘get up and exercise’ is just not helpful. You need something to bridge you into the exercise, which is what I did. The NHS site also says go to work even if you are in pain as it will distract you from the pain and stop you getting depressed. Again I wonder if whoever wrote that, has lived with the eroding crucifying process of chronic pain.

A different approach

So, what did I do instead? The prescribed exercise did not help me as I was in too much pain to face the light and my head throbbed more when I moved. Acupuncture gave just brief temporary relief. I then discovered hypnotherapy. It aided my sleep without the sledgehammer effect of pills. And it helped me manage my pain daily, giving me the chance to go out again for a meal, a visit to a theatre, plus exercising properly and meeting friends. Most importantly for me, I was able to work again.

Hypnotherapy for pain gave me my life back. I then became fascinated about how it worked. My life had felt more or less over when I was only 34 – too young to be retired and living in a darkened room, so I owe a huge debt of gratitude to hypnotherapy which I have tried to repay.

I went on to qualify as a hypnotherapist and have watched people achieve exceptional change through it. I now train others to be therapists too, am involved in the governance of hypnotherapy and I really do have my life back.

Of course, I still live in pain every day. But by using hypnotherapy techniques I can manage it. The one thing I am in agreement with NICE is that we need to manage the expectations of patients, who can often want some miraculous cure – a magic tablet or process that will annihilate all pain. Sadly, that is not reasonable, but we can manage it sufficiently to have a quality of life again with the aid of hypnotherapy.

At the same time, I am disappointed that NICE do not seem to acknowledge what hypnotherapy can do to give people more than just as a temporary fix. Consider the benefits of helping to bring people like me back into the workforce rather than depend on the benefits system for support. What’s more, so many people are not in a position to self-fund their own treatment. CBT (Cognitive Behavourial Therapy) is recognised as having ‘some’ effect. In my opinion, it would be enhanced considerably if it was utilised within hypnosis. Sadly, hypnotherapy does not get mentioned in this regard, despite the many successful clinical trials carried out to show its efficacy.

It is hard to get recent statistics, but data from 2017, reveals nearly 45 million prescriptions for aspirin and paracetamol in the UK. In financial terms £537 million was spent in 2016 on prescribing painkillers. If even a proportion of this money were made available for hypnotherapy, we could affect some real change to people’s lives, remove dependency on medication and give back a sense of self-actualisation, the empowerment to help oneself and not be controlled by the pain.

If you are interested in some of the research into hypnosis and pain, you can read the following paper: Hypnotherapy for the Management of Chronic Pain from the International Journal of Experimental Hypnosis, available at this link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2752362

You might also find this article on the PubMed website entitled Hypnotic Treatment for Chronic Pain valuable: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16404678