Hypnosis Reduces Breast Surgery Side Effects

It's something that's usually associated with stage performances and helping smokers quit, but new research suggests hypnosis may soon be an important tool in helping patients endure common side effects of breast cancer surgery.

Researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York showed that a 15-minute hypnosis session reduced side effects including pain, nausea and emotional distress in patients undergoing breast cancer operations.

The study was published Tuesday in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

"If this were a drug, it would be very successful," said lead study author Guy Montgomery, director of the Integrative Behavioral Medicine Program at Mount. Sinai School of Medicine.

Montgomery added that hypnosis carries the added benefit of having no side effects — a quality that makes it an attractive alternative to many drugs used for similar purposes.

Two hundred women who were about to undergo surgeries like a breast biopsy or removal of a suspicious breast lump participated in the study. About half of the women received a 15-minute hypnosis session shortly before their operations. The other women in the study had a consultation with a psychologist before surgery.

The hypnosis session included relaxation exercises that encouraged the women to think of pleasant thoughts, such as a beach on warm day. The women who did not undergo hypnosis talked to a psychologist, who listened and offered supportive comments only.

After their surgeries, the women who had hypnosis experienced less pain, nausea, fatigue, discomfort and emotional upset than their counterparts — and these differences were substantial, the study's authors reported.

Not only did hypnosis reduce the side effects from surgery, but it also did this while reducing the amount of anesthesia used during the surgery. Additionally, the researchers showed that hypnosis decreased the amount of time spent in the operating room by almost 11 minutes, leading to an overall cost savings of about $770 per patient.

These results were seen despite the fact that treatments involving hypnotism don't work for everyone; previous studies have shown that about 11 percent of people are resistant to hypnosis. But researchers noted that the tests used to weed out hypnosis-resistant women from the study would have taken longer to perform than the hypnosis itself.

Believing in Good Results

Hypnosis is believed to work by helping patients expect good results. It also helps take attention away from pain, and some studies have even shown that hypnosis can actually change the way a patient perceives pain.

"When we take an aspirin … we expect to have headache relief," Montgomery said. "One of the things hypnosis is very good at is helping people form expectancy to these outcomes, such as less pain and less nausea."

While hypnosis is commonly associated with a loss of control, many doctors say it is a powerful tool that patients can use to take charge of their own health.

C. Richard Chapman, professor and director of the Pain Research Center at the University of Utah said, "This study adds to a growing body of evidence showing that psychological interventions complement medical interventions. … Such interventions empower patients by engaging them in their own care and giving them control over their own pain, nausea and discomfort."

Montgomery said that even patients who are skeptical about or fearful of hypnosis can take advantage of its benefits if they are properly counseled.

"We're going to tell you that hypnosis is typically not like hypnosis used in television or seen in movies," he said. "Rather, its something that we can do together that can help you reduce side effects. … You're really the person in control."

Adding to this notion is the fact that the hypnosis sessions the women underwent included instruction on how they could perform hypnosis on themselves in the future.

Not Just for Breast Cancer Surgery

In addition to being effective, hypnosis may also prove to be a versatile tool. The benefits of hypnosis have been shown in previous research to extend to other procedures as well, including gynecological surgery and coronary artery bypass.

Montgomery said he is hopeful that doctors continue to expand the use of hypnosis in other medical applications.

"This could become part of standard care," he said. However, he added, "it's not a panacea for everything, but rather a tool in the toolbox that we can use to address specific problems."