Hypnosis Eases Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Reprinted from Consumer Reports on Health
October 2006

Your bowels are beginning to function in all situations with a healthy, quite, natural ryhtm...just like the gentle sounds of small waves in the background on a calm and sunny day at the beach." That soothing suggestion is part of a safe, effective hypnosis treatment for irritable bowel syndrome, which is notoriously difficult to treat with conventional therapies.

Standard Methods

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder, particularly in women, that cases abdominal pain, bloating, and either diarrhea, constipation, or both. Those symptoms are often accompanied by nausea, fatigue, backache, increased urinary frequency, and migraines. The cause of IBS is unknown, though stress can worsen the symptoms.

Dietary changes may help relieve the discomfort; the specific changes depend on which symptoms predominate and which foods trigger them. Most people will need medication, too: laxatives, antidiarrhea drugs, antispasmodics, or low-dose antidepressants (for those with pain plus diarrhea).

But drugs cannot cure IBS, and often they don't work or have substantial adverse effects. Indeed, more than half of the patients treated for the disorder still have symptoms six months later.

Trance Treatment

People who don't respond to standard treatments may benefit from hypnotherapy. The typical treatment involves seven sessions, each 20 to 40 minutes long, given every other week. The practitioner uses relaxation, visual imagery, and suggestion to bring the gastrointestinal tract under control. Between visits, patients listen to a tape at home for daily practice in self-hypnosis.

A 2005 review of 14 studies on IBS hypnotherapy, involving 664 people, concluded that it consistently improved symptoms in most patients. The six studies that used a control group--including hypnosis without any suggestion of pain relief--found improvement in 52 to 87 percent of patients.

The benefits of hypnotherapy seem to last, a 2003 British study found. The researchers surveyed 204 patients up to six years after hypnotherapy, which had initially helped over two-thirds of them. Of those positive responders, 81 percent maintained the improvement, with no significant drop-off as the years passed.

Hypnotherapists can't explain exactly how the technique works. While IBS is exacerbated by stress, it is not a purely psychological disorder, says Olafur Palsson, associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina and author of a widely used hypnosis protocol. "The current understanding of IBS suggests that there is a problem in the way the brain and the gut interact in controlling bowel function," he says. The hypnotic suggestions seem to "help make that normal again."

Finding a Hypnotherapist

To find one of the more than 200 U.S. health professionals who practice the North Carolina protocol--physicians, psychologists, clinical social workers, and nurses--go to www.ibshypnosis.com or ask your gastroenterologist for a referral. Costs vary, depending partly on the practitioner. For example, treatment costs less when done by nurses rather than psychologists, who typically charge about $1,000 to $1,200 for the seven sessions. However, it's often easier to get reimbursed under a mental-health benefit, which requires treatment by a psychologist or clinical social worker.