Nurse-led hypnosis helps cancer patients find relief from pain, nausea

October 8, 2015 | by Nancy Brands Ward

Hypnosis gets a bad rap. Portrayals in the media of hypnosis as a silly or devious tool used to embarrass unwitting subjects or even gain control of people and their resources have kept these misconceptions alive. But now research overwhelmingly demonstrates that in the right hands hypnosis can provide tremendous benefits for patients struggling to manage challenging diseases.

In fact, the scientific evidence that hypnosis is both safe and effective for managing symptoms of cancer is so strong that the National Institutes of Health endorses its use, says Kate Kravits, R.N., M.A., senior research specialist with City of Hope’s Division of Nursing Research and Education. And under a program led by Kravits, hypnosis has helped nearly 200 City of Hope cancer patients over the past three years find relief from anxiety, pain, sleeplessness, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting.

Just what happens during hypnosis? Hypnosis is a form a focused attention, Kravits explains, during which subjects are aware of everything that’s going on. As patients become deeply relaxed into hypnosis, communication between two parts of the brain is altered, increasing a patient’s ability to respond to suggestion. Suggestibility occurs naturally in nearly all people. Only about 2 percent of the population lacks sufficient degrees of suggestibility and cannot be hypnotized. The remaining 98 percent respond with varying degrees of suggestibility.

It’s possible through hypnotic suggestion to alter a patient’s perception of a sensory, cognitive, or emotional experience. Kravits works collaboratively with patients to develop a suggestion that they’ll use during hypnosis to target troublesome symptoms. There’s no mumbo-jumbo involved.

Here’s how an actual suggestion used by Kravits sounds: “Because you are a powerful person, you are able to transform your experience. When you begin to notice that you’re experiencing pain, you will immediately be able to transform it into a sensation of coolness.”

Hypnosis also modulates a physical response by releasing a neurochemical that slows the transmission of pain impulses to the brain, where they’re interpreted by the central processing area of the brain as less intense, Kravits says.

Pain relief on the go – even by smartphone

Kravits works with patients who’ve been referred by physicians. After an initial 45-minute consultation, the therapy is provided through one to three, 15-minute hypnosis sessions. Patients are encouraged to listen to a recording of the suggestion made by Kravits – which they can download to a smartphone – as often as is helpful.

At the end of three sessions, Kravits conducts an evaluation. “It we have not produced measurable benefits by the third session, we’re probably not going to,” she says. “Patients who have measurable benefits can continue for two more sessions or schedule a session when they feel the need. It’s a fairly brief therapy that fits easily into a patient’s care plan.”

Kravits is currently analyzing data from all patients she’s seen over the past three years, and preliminary results reveal that 89 percent of patients receiving hypnosis during the program’s first year reported lasting benefits. Of those, 11 percent experienced lasting results immediately. She sees no indication that data from the second and third years of the program will not support this level of success.

“I’m very excited about the benefits we’re seeing here,” Kravits says.

As she began to see more patients, Kravits came upon an unanticipated finding. In patients with more than one symptom, say anxiety and pain, the combination was associated with exacerbated symptoms. Past trauma seemed to be at the root the problem, provoking anxiety in some patients in the face of necessary cancer treatments. Being in a confined space for an MRI might trigger crippling anxiety, for example. Past trauma prevented one patient from going through with a process to create a mask that would prevent radiation from reaching the brain – an essential tool in her cancer treatment. Kravits was able to help her with a single session.

“Psychotherapy or desensitization to address the fear could take weeks,” Kravits says. “I don’t need to know details of the traumas, through hypnosis I provide a suggestion that [the patient is] capable of being safe.”

‘The tip of the iceberg’ in helping patients

Kravits is now awaiting approval to pursue further research into how hypnosis can help people with trauma manage anxiety in the face of cancer and its sometimes frightening treatments.

“Having a tool like hypnosis and working with Kate is an incredible benefit,” says Shirley Johnson, R.N., M.S., M.B.A., senior vice president, chief nursing and patient services officer at City of Hope. “We have just touched the tip of the iceberg in how we might be able to use these therapies in a more comprehensive way going forward.”

Qualified hypnosis practitioners are scarce across the country, and few health care organizations offer the benefits of hypnosis for their patients. Kravits’ qualifications include training in hypnosis as part of her master’s degree in psychotherapy and advanced consultant certification from the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. At City of Hope today, she is the sole practitioner in the nurse-led hypnosis program.

“We would love to expand the program in the future,” Johnson says. “We’re seeking other nurses who might have an interest in becoming certified in the technique that they could incorporate into their practice.” 

Learn more about our unique patient experience, how to make an appointment or get a second opinion at City of Hope. You may also request a new patient appointment online or call 800-826-HOPE (4673) for more information.

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