Hypnosis and Pain

…or why we shake our hands when we hurt our fingers

Pain is much more than just about sensory input. Pain is a complex interaction between the brain, mind and body. How we interpret pain is affected by many factors including our mood, thoughts, beliefs and the circumstances of the onset of pain. No wonder pain is such a subjective experience!

In order to understand the experience of pain and how hypnosis works it’s important to be aware of Melzack and Wall’s ‘Gate Control Theory’. According to this theory there is an actual “pain gate” in the spinal cord which can open and close affecting the transmission of nerve pain signals to and from the brain.

How the pain gate works:

    • Bundles of nerve fibres transmit nerve impulses from the skin, muscles and organs to the brain.
    • Nerves transmit signals at different speeds; sensory signals of pressure, touch or vibration are transmitted fastest in large fibres; acute pain signals are transmitted slower; chronic pain signals are transmitted slowest of all, in small fibres.
    • The brain interprets these messages and sends a responding nerve signal causing a response of some kind.
    • When the pain gate is open nerve pain signals travel to (and from) the brain; when the gate is closed nerve pain messages are blocked.
    • When the nerves transmitting pressure/touch or vibration are firing the pain gate is closed.
    • When small fibres are transmitting the pain gate is open.

When you instinctively rub or shake a finger that you’ve accidentally dropped something on, for example – it’s because in doing so you’re activating the rapid firing large nerve fibres – closing the pain gate and reducing pain. This is also why TENS machines, etc. can be so effective – they stimulate the large nerve fibres, closing the pain gate.

Melzack and Wall also discovered that people who suffer from chronic pain tend to become over-sensitised to pain, rather than becoming habituated to it as you might expect. The nerve fibres get so used to carrying nerve pain signals to and from the brain that they get “imprinted” creating a loop that continues to send messages of pain long after the original injury has healed. The longer these pain messages are firing – the more pain is amplified, so that the brain misinterprets relatively mild physical symptoms as severe pain. No wonder it’s so common to feel overwhelmed.

Pain factors you should know about…

The pain gate is also influenced by our mood. If pain causes you to feel fearful, anxious, depressed or frustrated be assured you’re not alone…. and I know what that’s like, because I’ve experienced this. The irony is though that these negative states of mind actually drive the cycle of pain. Stress and anxiety for example, stimulates the release of neurotransmitters such as adrenaline and cortisol which opens the pain gate, exacerbating pain. Depression and negative thoughts which make us feel helpless, hopeless and lacking control also open the pain gate, creating a vicious cycle of depression and pain. Fear, anger and frustration is also known to exacerbate pain. On the other hand relaxation, happiness and positive states of mind close the pain gate. Similarly feelings of gratitude or absorption in positive activities can also help to reduce pain by closing the pain gate.

Other factors influencing how we experience pain includes our attitudes, beliefs and behaviours or habits, personality traits and learning experiences. How you think about pain certainly affects your experience of it. If it’s merely an annoyance, it will be much easier to cope with than if you feel that it’s the worst thing that can happen. The circumstances of the onset of pain is also significant. If your pain was caused by a car accident that was not your fault you’ll feel very different to someone whose pain was caused by saving their child’s life. Someone with a progressive disease will have a different experience of pain again. In each case pain will result in different emotions and meanings.

Spontaneous pain control

We’ve all heard of athletes that have played on despite serious injury driven by their motivation and will to win, not experiencing their pain until later. I enjoy the Channel 4 programme A&E – I particularly remember one episode in which a father had used his bare hands to put out his daughter’s skirt which had caught fire. His wife had had to stay behind and look after their other children and he had to comfort her on his own – such was his concern for his daughter that he showed no sign of pain despite burning both hands. Such examples demonstrate that pain is not just simply sensory input, but a complex interaction between brain, mind and body depending on a wide range of factors.

Over the last 20 years there has been much research into hypnosis and pain. Study after study confirms that hypnosis is effective in relieving pain and appears to assist in closing the pain gate.

Hypnosis helps by promoting deep relaxation, thus counteracting the stress response. Natural feel-good chemicals such as endorphins, noradrenaline and serotonin are released closing the pain gate, reducing pain and promoting over-all well-being. Hypnosis also helps to interrupt the chronic pain loop established in pain amplification syndrome.

Hypnosis also helps by:

    • Transforming your perception of pain which slows or inhibits pain signals.
    • Directing your attention away from the pain which slows or inhibits pain signals.
    • Teaching you how to disconnect from pain.
    • Challenging your negative thoughts and replacing them with positive, progressive thoughts and ideas, closing the pain gate.
    • Giving you back control – empowering you to move from feeling a helpless victim of circumstances to being in control and able to cope.
    • Addressing negative moods, e.g. anger, depression, etc. and promoting a more positive, peaceful state of mind.
A willingness to practice and experiment with various hypnosis techniques is very important.

What works well for one person may not work so well for another – so you need to find what works for you. Hypnotherapy is not a ‘magic wand’ but can provide relief from pain with persistent effort and practice. You have the ability to alter your experiences and responses to pain using hypnosis, as many others have, with the potential to lead a more comfortable and more fulfilling life.

If you’re interested in learning hypnosis techniques for managing or even overcoming acute, intermittent or chronic pain, have a read of some of my other posts in this category (‘Chronic Pain’) or, if you like, arrange some one-to-one hypnotherapy sessions with me. Give me a call to discuss your needs on 07809 447720 or email me. I use the hypnosis techniques I teach regularly and have found them to be invaluable in helping me to relax deeply. Most importantly hypnosis has helped me to overcome the fear and anxiety I used to experience and which is so often associated with chronic pain. I’m happy to answer any questions you may have.

I’m a hypnotherapist providing a friendly, professional service in Devon, with therapy rooms in Buckfastleigh and Axminster. I offer a free initial consultation, so please feel free to contact me.

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