Signs are growing that hypnosis, once the preserve of charlatans, has real medical benefits. We need robust research to find out for sure Health | Leader 6 November 2019 SIP, Raguet H/Science Photo LibraryDO YOU know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine. So says Tim Minchin in his poem “Storm”,…
Signs are growing that hypnosis, once the preserve of charlatans, has real medical benefits. We need robust research to find out for sure
6 November 2019
DO YOU know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine. So says Tim Minchin in his poem “Storm”, in which he makes the case for evidence-led treatment.
We have a long history of therapies that first seemed bananas, only to be proved marvellous medicine. In the 1980s, two Australian scientists showed that stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria, not stress. As a result, simple antibiotics could treat a problem once considered incurable. But the medical establishment took some persuading.
The pair won a Nobel prize, for having the “tenacity to challenge the prevailing dogma”. Tenacity is just what is needed now, in identifying the place of hypnosis in mainstream medicine (see “What hypnosis does to your brain, and how it can improve your health“).
People are right to be sceptical, given its fantastical origins, but evidence is accumulating that hypnosis has real promise as a medical therapy – helping doctors perform surgery with fewer side effects and at lower cost, minimising chronic pain, improving weight loss techniques and potentially aiding an international addiction crisis.
But no establishment should accept any alternative medicine until we have solid evidence of what works, and what doesn’t. Tenacity only gets you so far. We also need investment and rigorous studies. When it comes to hypnosis, these are still in short supply.
“The jury may be in on therapies like homeopathy, but that shouldn’t stop us exploring other unusual treatments”
For instance, despite its popularity as a means to quit smoking, a recent review found no good evidence that hypnosis helps. But this doesn’t mean it doesn’t, says Jamie Hartmann-Boyce at the University of Oxford, because relevant research has been so poorly designed it makes it impossible to say for sure either way. “It’s such an important issue that we need… bigger, better trials,” she says.
Hypnosis may be hard to define and difficult to study, but the pay-offs could be huge. With suggestions that it can potentially reduce reliance on opioids, drugs which kill 130 people in the US every day due to overdose, surely it is worth taking seriously.
The jury is in on alternative remedies like homeopathy, but that shouldn’t stop us from exploring other unusual treatments – you never know, it might just lead to a Nobel prize.
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