Yes, Hypnosis Really Can Treat Irritable Bowel Syndrome

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When you have abdominal pain — and bathroom issues — wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could send your digestive tract soothing messages?
U.S. medical centers have begun to do just that — using “gut-directed hypnotherapy” to treat irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and ulcerative colitis.
They’ve been looking especially for a new option to treat IBS, as up to half of IBS sufferers are dissatisfied with the results of standard medical management, and continue to have frequent symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and sharp stabs of pain in the abdomen or continual aches.
For Anna*, IBS symptoms had become so unpredictable she was afraid to book trips. “When I filled out my symptom checklist,” she said, “I broke down and cried. I realized how much IBS had taken over my life.”
Nine months after completing an online hypnotherapy program, metaMe Connect, Anna says she’s returned to “normalcy.” She’s now able to plan ahead without worrying that she won’t be well. “I don’t have fear and I don’t make decisions based on fear,” she said.
A new option
Because IBS can be so difficult to treat, in the last decade, gut-directed hypnotherapy programs have spread around the country.
Mount Sinai in New York, the University of Michigan, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, the University of Washington in Seattle, Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and Loyola University Medical Center and Northwestern Memorial Hospital in the Chicago area now offer or suggest hypnotherapy to IBS patients.
Gut-directed hypnotherapy is a form of hypnosis. Patients meet in person or by video-conference with a therapist, or listen to recordings that guide them step by step into a relaxed state.
Once patients enter the hypnotic state, they are taken through visualization exercises and hear suggestions designed to calm their digestive tract and wean them away from focusing on gut sensations.
Unlike a meditation tape anyone might pick up, this therapy has been standardized and tested — a key reason it has won acceptance from gastroenterologists at major hospitals.
More than 20 years ago, clinical psychologist Olafur Palsson, PsyD, at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill, began using a specific set of scripts in a protocol that now has been studied extensively.
From 53 to 94 percent of IBS patients responded to the treatment, depending on the trial, with benefits lasting as long as a year.
The therapy addresses a problem that seems to accompany several gastrointestinal ailments: miscommunication between the gut and the brain. The smooth muscles of the intestinal wall can be hyper-reactive, altering the normal patterns of muscle contraction. Additionally, the brain can also be misinterpreting normal signals from the gut.