Headaches are a common condition, they can be provoked by several causes and they can appear with different characteristics. Broadly speaking, every year 47% of the world’s population will suffer from it at least once and the majority of these cases are tension-type headaches, which are caused by the prolonged tension of the muscles of neck and shoulders because of stress1.
Hypnosis, since the first formalized experimentations that can be traced back to the ‘800s, has been used to manage several kinds of pain and this field of research is one of the most represented in the literature on the topic. The effectiveness of this technique led some researchers to define it as “an efficacious and specific treatment for pain, showing superiority to pill and psychological placebos, as well as other treatments3.” The National Institute of Health (the main medical association in the United States) describes hypnosis as a technique “effective in treating chronic pain and insomnia” especially in patients suffering form severe terminal illnesses as cancer4. That said, it is easy to understand why a certain amount of researchers became interested in the so-called primary headaches, which are those that are not caused by other medical conditions.
Observing the effectiveness of hypnosis in the treatment of other child-related problems (dyspnea, insomnia, nightmares), experimenters investigated the effects that a self-hypnosis training, coupled with 2 sessions of hypnosis, could have in such kind of condition. Ninety-six percent of the young participants (mean age 15) reported, at the end of the study, a reduction in intensity and frequency of pain. More specifically, researchers divided patients into two groups: one composed by participants whose headaches were caused by varying stressful factors and another one whose headaches were caused from fixed factors (specific situations). Researchers claim that in the latter cases interventions were effective because through hypnosis therapists were able to identify and work on the psychological causes of such kinds of somatic reactions5.
An important part of the research in this field focused especially on children and adolescents, a population that is particularly affected by recurrent and chronic headaches (prevalence is, respectively: 10,6% and 28%). This condition can lead to both subjective distress and negative consequences on patients’ everyday life, such as troubles in focusing attention at school, excessive worrying about one’s own physical health, relational problems with peers and adults and skipping school days6. In such cases, a pharmacological therapy is often administered but, unfortunately, it doesn’t always work and can cause more side effects than benefits7.
A study conducted in 20078 investigated the effects of a treatment based on teaching self-hypnosis to 144 patients whose headaches were resistant to medicines. Results showed respectively an 88% and 87% reduction in the frequency and intensity of episodes. Follow up allowed to ascertain that such results remained stable even for very long time spans (mean follow up period: 11,6 years) and that participants tended to generalize the use of self-hypnosis in different areas of their lives such as anxiety management in academic or sport performance or to improve the quality of sleep9.
In summary, hypnosis is recognized as an effective technique for the reduction of several kinds of pain, headaches included. It is a cost and time effective choice, it has no side effects and – especially when coupled with a self-hypnosis training – promotes the autonomy of individuals and provides instruments that can be broadly used to improve well being and self confidence.
[1] WHO (2012), Headache Disorders, Fact sheet N°277. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs277/en/.
[2] Elliotson, J. (1843). Numerous cases of surgical operations without pain in the mesmeric state. Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard.
[3] Chambless, D.L., Baker, M.J., Baucaom, D.H., Beutler, L.E., Calhoun, K.S., Crits-Christhoph, P., et al. (1998). Update on empirically validated therapies II. The Clinical Psychologist, 51, 3-16.
Chambless, D.L., Hollon, S.D. (1998). Defining empirically supported therapies. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
[4] NIH Technology Assessment Panel on Integration of Bavioral and Relaxation Approaches into the Treatment od Chronic Pain and Insomnia. (1996). Integration of behavioral and relaxation approaches into the treatment of chronic pain and insomnia. Journal Of The American Medical Association, 276, 313-318.
[5] Anbar, R.D., Zoughbi, G.G. (2008). Relationship of headache associated stressors and hypnosis therapy outcome in children: a retrospective chart review. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 50:4, 335-341.
[6] Carlsson J, Larsson B, Mark A. (1996) Psychosocial functioning in schoolchildren with recurrent headaches. Headache;36:77-82.
Karwautz A, Wober C, Lang T, Bock A, Wagner-Ennsgraber C, Vesely C, et al. (1999). Psychosocial factors in children and adolescents with migraine and tension-type headache: a controlled study and review of the literature. Cephalalgia;19: 32-43.
[7] Lewis D, Ashwal S, Hershey A, Hirtz D, Yonker M, Silberstein S. (2004). Practice parameter: pharmacological treatment of migraine headache in children and adolescents. Neurology;63:2215-24.
[8] Kohen, D.P, Zajac, R. (2007). Self-Hypnosis Training for Headaches in Children and Adolescents. Journal of Pediatrics, 150, 635-639.
[9] Kohen, D.P. (2010). Long-Term Follow-up of Self-Hypnosis Training For Recurrent Headaches: What the Children Say. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 58:4, 417-432.