Using self-hypnosis to control pain
Doctor/author champions benefits of hypnotherapy
Growing up, Dr. Jeffrey Ennis was into boxing, wrestling, martial arts and gymnastics. But at 16, he dislocated his knee playing soccer, marking the start of a lifelong struggle with chronic pain.
For Ennis, now 63, medication never worked as well as he’d like it to. One thing that has helped is hypnotherapy, a set of techniques used to induce hypnosis in a person whereby the individual focuses on their internal state, making it easier to control pain. Although hypnosis has been controversial, studies show it can be an effective therapeutic tool.
For the last three decades, Ennis has used self-hypnosis every day, reducing his pain by about 30 per cent for an hour. When the pain returns full-force, he simply does it again.
As the medical director of The Ennis Centre for Pain Management, a bustling clinic in Hamilton he started more than 20 years ago, Ennis teaches selfhypnosis to patients grappling with a range of conditions. They include fibromyalgia, back disorders and pain from trauma such as car accidents or workplace injuries. He’s one of the only doctors in the region teach- ing self-hypnosis and says it’s a poorly understood practice, which is why it isn’t part of the mainstream medical community.
“Anyone can do it and everyone can benefit, some more than others,” says Ennis, a psychiatrist and specialist on managing chronic non-cancer pain. “I’m in an outlying group and get less benefit than most people will. And I’m quite happy with what I get because I have yet to take a pill that does better.”
In his recently published book, Hypnotherapy for Pain Control: A Safe and Non-addictive Way to Relieve Chronic Pain, Ennis talks about his personal struggles, the problem with relying on pills such as opioids, the science behind hypnosis and a step-by-step guide on self-hypnosis.
Torstar News Service recently spoke with Ennis, who’s also assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences at Mcmaster University and a staff physician at Hamilton Health Sciences in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
When people think of hypnosis, they think of the stage hypnotist. So how is it used to control pain? Stage hypnosis is not clinical hypnosis … Clinical hypnosis is putting a person into a trance-like state, which makes them turn more inward. If
I get someone into a good trance, they don’t hear the traffic outside or the clock ticking in the room. They’re more internally focused. In that state, people are able to take advantage of skills they didn’t otherwise recognize they had — one is to control their pain more effectively.
How do they do that? They’re accessing a part of the brain that allows them to, by intention, push down the pain … At its most basic, even if it helps a person relax a bit, they’re relaxing muscles and that will make the pain less. Someone who’s a little better at self-hypnosis can actually stop it.
How long does it take to do self-hypnosis and what does it look like? For instance, can someone do this at work while sitting at their desk?
As a newbie, you may be at your desk and have your eyes closed for a bit. You need about five to 10 minutes — if you’re good at it. If not it will take you longer. You have to practise. Each of us are different … The better you get at it, the more you’ll get out of it. And the longer you do it, the quicker it takes. I don’t look like I’m doing anything. I don’t have to do a formal trance. I can do this standing, walking. It didn’t start this way. It took me a year until I got into my first trancelike state.
You’re not anti-medicine and aren’t suggesting folks toss out their medications. Rather you want them to think of hypnosis as another tool in the therapeutic tool box. It’s a tool when other things aren’t working as well as you’d like. The data is very clear that, for the most part, opioids really don’t work so great … I do prescribe opioids. I’m a very conservative user of them. I think people have to be willing to develop other skills. The biggest problem in North America is that we teach people to be passive. The easiest thing you can do is take a pill — and the easiest thing for a doctor to do is prescribe one. Everybody is quite happy if a pill works. The problem in chronic pain is there is nothing on the table that works great. If it did, I’d be taking it.
Have you seen patients use hypnosis to reduce their pain and their reliance on opioid medications?
Yes. One fellow was a long-distance runner who developed rheumatoid arthritis, so his joints are basically crumbling. He was put on opioids and got up to a high dose, near 400 miligrams a day, and they weren’t doing what he wanted. I taught him self-hypnosis and he was a natural. He found that when he did it, he could get 100 per cent pain reduction … Right now he’s taking a low dose of opioid, probably below 50 mg. He’s a great example of what’s possible.
Dr. Jeffrey Ennis, inset, says a five- to 10-minute period of self-hypnosis buys him an hour or two of relief from chronic pain.