SOME THOUGHTS ON HYPNO-ANESTHESIA
Perhaps one of the most impressive demonstrations of the power of the mind is that of anesthesia. Hypnotists have traditionally pierced the cheeks, pinched to the point of bleeding, and immersed the hands of hypnotized people into freezing water for extended periods of time. These “experiments” have been carried out in laboratories, under controlled conditions, and by stage hypnotists alike, all apparently without eliciting much reaction from their subjects. Clearly, the view of actual blood dripping from a hypnotized person who is not screaming with pain must be impressive to those watching hypnosis shows.
The term “hypno-anesthesia” refers to the induction of anesthesia using hypnosis. Hypnosis is a mental state of connection between the conscious and unconscious portions of the mind. Finally, “anesthesia” comes from the Greek and can be translated as “absence of sensation”.
Medical anesthesia encompasses three features: analgesia, or the absence of pain, muscular relaxation, which prevent autonomic, reflexive, contractions, and amnesia, sedation or full unconsciousness. In medical general anesthesia, for instance, the patient is asleep and unaware, relaxed and devoid or reflexive contractions, and free of pain or other sensations.
The very first public demonstration of medical anesthesia happened in 1846. A story I often share with students is how the dentist Dr. William Morton (1819–1868) is historically credited with the discovery of the first successful anesthetic, although that credit may have cost him his life because of the fierce battles that followed his application for a patent.
It took a while before the technique of ether inhalation was perfected, and made available to general surgeons. The trick was to induce enough anesthesia to make surgery possible, without depressing respiration to the point of killing the patient.
Before the mid 19th century some surgeons did operate using hypnotic anesthesia, most notably Dr. James Esdaile (1808–1859) who is reputed to have performed over 5000 surgeries using only hypnosis for anesthesia.
Performing surgery under hypnotic anesthesia is possible, but much more complex than the use of modern chemical anesthesia. There are more skilled anesthesiologists at surgical centers in the United States today than hypnotists capable of inducing the kind of hypnosis needed for surgery. Furthermore, chemical anesthesia takes a few minutes to induce and the patient does not need to understand, cooperate, or believe in anything in order for it to work. Hypnotic anesthesia for use with routine surgery in the United States today is, therefore, practically not used.
Considering the ready availability of chemical anesthesia, not just for surgery, but also over the counter analgesics, why do modern hypnotherapists talk so much about hypno-anesthesia? Consider these situations:
1) Emergency pain, such as in accidents, or the pain experienced before medical care is available or possible
2) Chronic pain that either does not respond to medications, or pain that requires toxic levels of medications for amelioration
3) Emotional or psychological pain
4) Dental pain, either before the dentist is available, or during dental procedures
All of the situations above can generate a great deal of suffering to afflicted individuals, yet all of them can be ameliorated with the use of hypnosis. What makes hypnosis in all of the above examples great is that the hypnotist does not even need to be present. It is possible to work with a person, and through something called post-hypnotic suggestions, help that person help himself for years.
One inherent advantage of the use of hypnosis for the reduction of physical or emotional discomfort is that relaxation is naturally attained. Relaxation itself, often, is of great physical and emotional benefit to many people. Digestive discomfort sometimes can be entirely resolved when a person takes one minute prior to eating to relax following the elicitation of an appropriate post-hypnotic suggestion. Another example of the benefit of relaxation is for bruxism, or teeth grinding. Much money and pain can be avoided by relaxing the body appropriately under the guidance of post-hypnotic suggestions prior to sleep, thus avoiding the grinding.
The most intractable and mysterious type of pain, that which we call emotional or psychological, can best be helped with the use of hypnosis. Consider for instance the loss of a loved one, the despair following financial ruin, or even the pain of not feeling understood within a relationship. Although psychotropic medications have advanced remarkably in the last 50 years, people still don’t feel quite right when using these medications to cover up these kinds of pain. The skillful use of hypnosis can help a person overcome pain of this nature while avoiding sedation or chemical masking.
People often think of PTSD in terms of the severe dysfunction that soldiers returning from combat can experience. Many people, however, never return from combat because they live in a war zone, they live in combat, in marriages and offices, in streets and roads, all over the world. Although these people may not be actually diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, they all share one thing in common: pain. When a hypnotist helps a person reframe their experiences, thus reducing pain in their lives, there is an anesthetic effect. Healing, no matter what the dysfunction is, always reduces pain; it is always anesthetic.
Even while using chemical anesthesia, some people experience severe distress during certain odontological procedures to the point of requiring complete sedation. Sedation may not be convenient, possible or desirable in certain cases, that is when hypno-anesthesia can help the patient feel confortable and the dentist be more productive.
The use of hypnosis for childbirth is particularly rewarding because mothers report feeling much more present during the birth experience when chemicals and sedatives are avoided, without feeling major levels of discomfort. The use of hypno-anesthesia for childbirth is convenient because chemical anesthesia can always be added if a mother requests it. Because there has been a social tendency towards natural childbirth and home births in the United States, hypnotists skilled in its use for childbirth are in very high demand.
When we use hypnosis to ameliorate any type of pain, to induce relaxation, and to induce altered states of consciousness it is appropriate to think of anesthesia, or hypno-anesthesia, because these are the features that define anesthesia, however it is induced.