Stomachaches—ugh! Whether you have chronic abdominal pain due to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or another health problem, such as Crohn’s disease or functional abdominal pain (FAP), ongoing belly discomfort can rob the joy from your life.
Popping certain pills can sometimes provide temporary relief, but since all drugs carry side effects, is there a natural way to feel better?
A new study done on teens and young adults shows that there is—and the good news is that experts say that this approach can work among older adults, too.
And it doesn’t involve drastically changing your diet—it involves hypnotherapy.
If you’re one of those people who thinks that hypnotherapy is hocus-pocus, think again. This type of therapy doesn’t involve anyone waving a pocket watch in front of your face, saying, “You are getting sleepy.”
It’s actually much simpler than that—you can even learn to hypnotize yourself…
ADJUSTING YOUR STATE OF MIND
The study, done by researchers from the Netherlands, tracked the impact of “gut-directed” hypnotherapy in girls and boys between the ages of 12 and 17 and young adults up to age 23 who had chronic abdominal pain.
All patients had participated in an earlier hypnotherapy study done by the same researchers five years before. In the earlier study, the patients had been split into two groups. Half underwent six sessions of hypnotherapy—including at-home “self-hypnosis”—while the rest were offered standard abdominal pain treatment consisting of pain medications, dietary changes and stress-reduction techniques.
For this new study, the patients kept a pain diary. The results indicated that hypnosis may bring lasting relief for chronic tummy pain. About 68% of the participants who had been taught hypnosis were free or mostly free of abdominal pain five years later, compared with only 20% of those who had received standard therapy alone. Scores for headache, chronic fatigue and joint pain were markedly lower among the hypnosis group as well.
It’s worth noting that this research has a limitation. The researchers didn’t track whether the subjects continued their assigned treatments in the five years between the two studies. So the researchers can’t say for sure that maintaining a hypnosis regimen is definitely what lowered the pain—the only distinguishing feature between the two groups is that one had used hypnotherapy for at least three months in the past.
TRANCES AREN’T TRICKY
For help interpreting the results, I called Miranda van Tilburg, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill and a researcher who has tested a treatment called guided imagery—which is similar to hypnosis—on abdominal pain and has found similar results.
What is hypnotherapy? It’s not as theatrical as television might lead you to believe, Dr. van Tilburg noted. In general, it’s done in a quiet room, where the patient sits, eyes closed, and imagines something fun—if the patient is a child, this could be going down a waterslide or riding a roller coaster. In this state of focused attention, while patients’ eyes are still closed, they’re given suggestions relating to how their bellies feel—for example, they might be told that there’s a “protective layer” inside that prevents anything from bothering them. Dr. van Tilburg said that hypnotherapy may help by reprogramming how signals from the gut are processed by the brain. In other words, hypnotherapy can help you trick yourself into feeling less pain.
If you suffer from abdominal pain, whether you’re a child or an adult, Dr. van Tilberg recommends asking your doctor about trying hypnotherapy, since there are no side effects. It’s best to find a certified hypnotherapist, she said (search the Web site of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, www.asch.net).