I’ve talked about 10 approaches of hypnotic pain relief (https://theunitedstrengths.com/blog/f/approaches-of-hypnotic-pain-relief), but how does hypnosis work?
First, you need to understand the neuroscience of pain. Pain starts as a signal that is carried by your nerves and there are several ‘gates’ that can block the signal from getting to the brain. If the signal doesn’t get to your brain, you don’t feel pain. If the gates are ‘open’, then they let the signal through to move towards the brain.
It all starts when a danger signal is produced. This is then picked up by the nerves in that area. If you touch a hot stove, then a danger signal at your finger tips is produced which the local nerves in finger tips pick up. The first gate is this local nerve picking the signal up. An example of it being blocked would be putting local anesthesia over your arm before getting a shot. The chemical anesthesia blocks the nerve from picking up the signal, so even though there is a stimulus (the shot), it never gets to the brain so you don’t feel pain.
The local nerve that picked the signal up then connects to the spinal cord. Here the nerves of the body end and the transition from this nerve to the nerve of the spinal cord forms ‘Gate 2’. An example of blocking this gate is what most people would think of as a nerve block, when they inject anesthesia into your spinal cord. This is very general, but the body is able to be very specific with what nerves it ‘blocks’. By the way, the chemical anesthesia used in the body is called endogenous opioids (commonly called endorphins). This endogenous (meaning created by the body) opioids can be released at Gate 1 and at Gate 2 to relieve pain.
Gates 3 and 4
The nerves of the spinal cord then go up your spine all the way to the base of the brain, the brain stem. Here the brain stem and a structure called the thalamus act as a funnel and front desk to the brain. Signals that aren’t important (think about all the hundreds and even thousands of sensations your body is getting every second from your skin, muscles, ears, eyes, nose, and more) are blocked from distracting our attention. Signals that are important make it through the funnel and go to the front desk. The thalamus is the front desk – signals from all over the body come here and the thalamus tells them where to go in the brain to report their findings. In this example, the danger signal will make it through the funnel because danger is almost always considered very important. It will then go to the thalamus/front desk who will tell it to go to the finger sensation part of the brain.
Only when a danger signal has reached the sensation part of the brain, do we become consciously aware of it – an experience that we call pain. If, at any point, that danger signal is blocked, then it won’t reach the sensation area of the brain and it won’t be experienced as pain.
When you’ve had pain longer than 6 months, changes are made at every level of the nervous system that generally make you more sensitive to signals in that area of your body. These changes are top-down, meaning the brain tells the rest of the nervous system to adjust the sensitivity. Thus, for relief from chronic pain, addressing the brain has the biggest bang for your buck.
Hypnosis for pain relief
Hypnotic approaches for pain relief mostly fall into 3 categories: desensitization, altering salience, and shifting experience.
Since the nervous system becomes sensitive to danger signals, using hypnosis to desensitize the nervous system works very well and at each of the gates. There are 3 levels of this:
Normalizing sensitivity: when the body is hypersensitive, sometimes just getting it back to normal sensitivity is all that’s needed.
Desensitize to pain (analgesia): this goes beyond reducing hypersensitivity to normal sensitivity. It takes it a step further by actually desensitizing your body to pain signals in general. This is most useful for chronic pain relief.
Desensitize completely (anesthesia): this is complete desensitization. The area is desensitized to all sensation, not just pain. This really is useful just for pain relief that only is needed for a short duration. An example would be inducing numbness in the arm for a shot. Some people have a natural ability for hypnotic anesthesia and can even undergo surgery without any medication and feel no pain.
Salience is how important a signal is. If you twisted your ankle crossing the street, your ankle would hurt. But if a car was coming at you and you twisted your ankle, it wouldn’t hurt at all and you would run out of the way. It wouldn’t hurt in the moment because the pain was much less important than the car and feeling pain would possibly be a life threatening distraction. Later, once you were safe, the ankle would hurt because it was now the priority.
Hypnosis can alter salience in several ways. One way is dissociation where you feel separate from your body and thus the signals from your body are unrelated to you. Another way is being so absorbed in something else (high salience), you don’t notice the pain. This is like forgetting your headache when you’re wrapped up in a thrilling movie. Often in hypnosis, so many suggestions are given for comfort and relaxation that that experience overrules anything else. Hypnosis often involves interesting imagery like relaxing on the beach which you can be so immersed in that you don’t notice anything else.
While this approach probably seems less helpful than the other 2, it’s actually probably the most common form of pain relief in the medical community in general. There’s a phenomenon called the ‘x-ray effect’. When someone badly twists their ankle and they fear they might have broken it, they have a lot of pain. But, when the x-ray comes back and shows that it isn’t fractured, they immediately feel better and quickly recover. This is an example of how decreasing salience can significantly help pain and recovery. Setting someone’s mind at ease can be very powerful. It’s important with hypnotic pain relief that the client is reassured that pain they need to feel, they will. And pain that isn’t so important, they don’t need to feel. This respects their body’s need to protect them through pain, but only to the extent that is appropriate and helpful.
This is when the intensity of the pain is not addressed, but rather how the pain is experienced. As such, suggestions for shifting experience only really take place at the highest level of pain processing, which is in the brain itself. This method can be just as powerful, and even more powerful in some cases, than the other 2 categories. Often when a person is convinced they must have pain (usually those with a terminal illness), suggestions to decrease the pain are ineffective. However, powerful relief can be accomplished by shifting the pain experience to something much more manageable.
Time distortion can be used where pain that normally lasts hours can be shifted to just last minutes or seconds. Usually this is paired with amnesia so as soon as the person starts feeling pain, they immediately go into trance, have the shortened pain, and then come out of trance with no memory of the pain and continue whatever they were doing. This not only reduces the pain experience but also the fear of pain which can be just as debilitating.
Pain itself can also be shifted. One shift is substitution for a different feeling. This happens by chaining the pain from one thing to the next. If someone has a burning pain, the focus can be shifted to burning. Then it can be shifted to the sensation of heat. Then to warmth. Then to the warm, tired feeling of relaxation. Another shift is displacement. This is moving the pain from one area to another. Again, some people truly cannot conceive of not having pain, but the pain they have is very debilitating. This is often trunk or leg pain which limits moving around. The pain can be displaced into the arm or even a finger. Thus they still have the pain they feel they must have, but it is in an area that doesn’t limit them as much.
Hypnosis for pain relief is very real. The mechanisms are carried out through alternations in the regulation of the nervous system. This goes from the level of the brain, down the spinal cord, and all the way to the level of the local nerves. If purely physical interventions (surgery, injections, medication, massage, etc.) haven’t helped you, then consider harnessing the power of your nervous system to get you the relief you need.