Child thumbs up

Power of Suggestion: Hypnosis Finds Uses in Medicine

Far from simply being a stage show, hypnosis is increasingly demonstrating utility in therapeutic settings, especially for children.


It may have a bad reputation, but there is a surprising amount of science behind the practice of hypnosis in medicine.

While meditation and mindfulness have taken a prominent place in helping patients deal with the mental strain that many illnesses bring, hypnosis remains largely sidelined. People see hypnosis as mind control or a circus sideshow, and not as a desirable or legitimate tool.

But clinical psychologists are increasingly reporting its ability to rapidly reduce anxiety and pain. Mindfulness can have similar effects, but it takes much more practice to achieve them. In hypnosis, with a willing and open-minded patient, the benefits can be dramatic and immediate.

In a nutshell, a hypnotist talks to a patient, inducing a calming trance state. People experience light trances in their daily lives, such as when they go into auto-pilot during a task or a commute. The hypnotist can then make suggestions to the subconscious mind. These might include feelings of relaxation, or that a medical procedure will be painless. If successful, the brain then regulates other processes in the body. It’s not a cure on its own, but it can aid in easing side effects or reducing the required dose of painkillers or opioids.

While about 10-15 percent of adults are categorized as highly hypnotizable and readily react to hypnotic suggestions, roughly the same percentage will not respond at all.

Dr. Amir Raz, professor of psychiatry at McGill University, understands the hesitation in adopting hypnosis clinically, even though it has shown strong results in clinical trials. He came to this field because of an early interest in magic, and sees many parallels. Both practices say a lot about perception, attention, and how the mind works (click to read more on the science of magic).

Raz likens the success of hypnosis to the placebo effect: patients who respond well do so because they have an expectation of success.

To avoid confusion with stage magic, Raz goes so far as to avoid the word hypnosis, instead using terms like focussed attention or susceptibility to suggestion. He works closely with neuroscientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute to try to unlock what happens inside the hypnotized brain, and to establish clinical therapies.

Hypnosis is playing a larger role in pediatrics, where child patients tend to be more receptive and imaginative.

Dr. Leora Kuttner, pediatric psychologist specializing in clinical hypnosis, regularly uses hypnosis in her practice. She began cultivating her techniques in the 1980s, as a doctor in the oncology ward at BC Children’s Hospital. Remarkably, she was able to guide children through procedures like spinal taps with only local anaesthetic. This avoided the use of general anaesthetic, which has special risks in young patients.

Kuttner gets regular referrals from BC Children’s Hospital, and has taught hypnosis at the Mayo Clinic, Alberta Children’s Hospital and the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. And while she finds it easy to train clinicians in hypnosis, she also cautions that medical training is essential. Without legitimate training, a hypnotist could miss signs of psychosis, triggering past traumatic memories.

But in the right hands, hypnosis can be a powerful tool that harnesses the therapeutic power of the mind.

‹ Previous post
Next post ›

Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.