Patients suffering from a painful condition called fibromyalgia may be able to “turn down” their pain through hypnosis, according to researchers.
A team of scientists from the University of Birmingham and University College London used fMRI scans to examine whether a combination of suggestion and hypnosis would help patients cope better with painful sensations.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that causes patients severe physical pain throughout their body as well as debilitating fatigue. This can affect the ligaments, tendons and muscles, but what causes it remains unclear.
But a joint study between both institutions, published in the European Journal of Pain, found patients were able to alter their experiences of pain by turning down an imaginary dial measuring its levels.
Under hypnosis, 46 fibromyalgia patients were asked to use this device to show the level of pain they were experiencing. Patients were also able to significantly reduce pain levels while under suggestion.
Researchers found suggestion was a more effective tool in controlling pain when the subjects were hypnotised.
The team also used functional magnetic resonance imaging with a dozen of the patients to look at brain activity while they altered their pain.
Dr Stuart Derbyshire, who led Birmingham’s team, said: “Fibromyalgia is an unusual condition because pain is experienced without any obvious physical stimulus being involved. In the study we looked at the exact neural processes that affect sufferers and their ability to control their pain.
“Our participants all showed classic brain activity that we would associate with severe pain. However, all were able control the intensity of that pain by turning the dial up or down.
“Although they were all able to affect their pain using the dial, this effect was significantly more pronounced when subjects were under hypnosis.
“This suggests that hypnosis could be a useful tool in helping patients manage chronic pain and is worthy of further research.
“While patients altered their pain during fMRI the team observed commensurate changes in activity in regions of the brain known to respond to pain.”
He added: “Understanding the complex neural networks involved in generating pain obviously has significant implications for our ability to treat pain in all its forms.
“In this case the participants’ ability to turn down pain shows that the experience of pain goes beyond an immediate reaction to a pin prick or burn.
“Rather than a stimulus causing pain, these patients might experience pain because of pain signals diffusing from the brain.”