About Pain Control and Hypnosis

A Brief History

The tool of hypnosis had most likely been used since the beginning of human existence. As far as documentation accounts go back as far as 2000 B.C.  Ancient Sanskrit writings include the use of healing trances, performed within healing temples in India. Egyptian papyruses scrolls depict the story of “sleep temples”, in which priests dressed in mystical robes would speak to those ill or in pain and healings resulted.

A more modern pioneer in the use of hypnosis for pain control was John Elliotson, (1791-1868): President of the Royal Medical and Surgical Society of London and a professor at London University, Elliotson’s professed belief in magnetism/mesmerism (later named hypnosis) was utilized  to perform 1,834 surgical operations. On his forced resignation he edited a journal, The Zoist, in which he reported the work of James Esdail.

James Esdaile. (1808-1859), was a student of Elliotson was known for not only performing hypnosis for pain control, but documenting his results.  As a Scottish surgeon who worked in India, between 1845 and 1851, over 300 major and 1000 minor surgeries were performed using only hypnotic anesthesia .  Esdaile gives a summary of 73 painless surgical operations he performed in the last 8 months of his stay in India. This included arm, breast and penis amputation, dental surgery and the removal of tumors. He used hypnosis to cure a variety of conditions including headaches, tics, sciatica and inflammation in a variety of body places. Unfortunately, returning home, the medical community did not believe him and he was shut out of the British Medical Corp.

Hypnosis was soon censored and instead chloroform, nitrous oxide and ether won acceptance for anesthesia. Only sporadic documented uses of hypnosis for anesthesia continued.

Esdaile, J. Mesmerism in India and its Practical Implications in Surgery and Medicine, 1846.


Hypnosis crept back into medical practice during WWII  when chemical analgesics and anesthetics were not always available.

Hypnosis was recognizes as a professional field for scientific research with the work of Ernest Ropiequit Hilgard (1904-2001) He was appointed Professor of Psychology at Stanford California in 1933. His major early interests were in learning and motivation, and two of his textbooks, Theory of Learning (1948) and Introduction to Psychology (1953) became classics. In the 1950s he and his wife Josephine, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Stanford became pioneers in bringing to hypnosis the discipline of scientific study. Hilgard recognized a need in research for a standard by which to measure depth of hypnosis and hypnotic susceptibility, and the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scale which he devised in 1959 is still in wide use today. In 1957 they established the Stanford Laboratory of Hypnosis Research. Here they experimented with hypnotic pain reduction and two books in particular, Hypnosis in the Relief of Pain (1975) and Divided Consciousness (1977), became landmarks in the objective study of hypnosis. In surveying the literature in 1975 they found over two dozen cases published between 1955 and 1974 where hypnosis was used as the sole analgesic or anesthetic in surgery.

In current times, the literature is extensive in the use of hypnosis for pain control. See the article “Scientific Research Using Hypnosis for Pain Control” for a sampling on some more current applications.

Hildard, J. Hypnosis in the Relief of Pain, (Hilgard and Hilgard), 1975.


Understanding Acute Vs. Chronic Pain

Acute pain serves as an identifiable function of protection from further harm. It tells us that something is wrong and something needs to be done about it. It is important to receive good medical evaluation for this type of pain.

Chronic pain, on the other hand, serves no biological purpose. Chronic pain of this kind does not disappear or reappear after extended periods even though the original cause is gone or the injury has healed.  Chronic pain is often defined as pain that lasts longer than six months in duration. Conditions in this category include:

  • Headaches/migraines
  • Back/neck pain
  • Arthritis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Phantom limb pain

Another category of pain often considered in the chronic type is “unnecessary pain.” Here it is important to be selective rather than eliminating pain.  Focus should be to alleviate pain but still be able to experience a new sensation that alerts one to a new problem or change in the existing one.  This pain can occur in the following and hypnosis can be an effective tool:

  • Childbirth
  • Cancer treatments
  • Dental procedures
  • Postoperative surgical pain
  • Discomfort from treated illnesses


Seek Medical Evaluation First

Whether pain is acute or chronic, professional medical evaluation is the first step. Hypnosis is powerful and it can remove or alleviate pain. The removal or lessening of discomfort using hypnosis before medical evaluation can make accurate diagnosis more difficult and even impossible to achieve. Consider pain of a tumor, for example. Hypnosis could alleviate the pain but the tumor could continue to grow and cause even more problems.


Common Techniques of Hypnotic Pain Management

1. Creating analgesia/anesthesia through the suggestion of changing the perception of pain, diminishing pain or gradually decreasing pain. For example: The client can rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being highest), picture a dial, scale or digital readout and perceive progressively diminishing numbers to a level that is comfortable

2. Substituting a less painful sensation for a more painful sensation. For example: A stabbing pain can be changed by the client to a warm temperature or a vibration

3. Moving the pain to another less vulnerable part of the body as perceived by the client or even to a place temporarily outside the body

4. Disassociating awareness can be used when the client does not need to be very functional, as in a medical or dental procedure or in the last stages of a terminal illness.  The patient is taught to experience himself in another more comfortable, pleasant time, place or state

5. Imagery and utilizing the creative mind to change the perception of pain (See My Pain Control Program)