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This article was prepared in consultation with Neville Robinson, is a Certified Hypnotherapist, a member of the United Kingdom Guild of Hypnotist Examiners, a member of the British Hypnotherapy Association and a member of the National Hypnotherapy Register.

What's the origin of hypnotherapy?

The practice of hypnotherapy is thought to have begun as long ago as 6,000 years, when the ancient Sumerian people used hypnosis as a therapeutic tool administered by priest-physicians.

The modern form of hypnotherapy evolved from the work of 18th century Austrian doctor Franz Anton Mesmer, who worked with magnets to put patients into a trance to help re-balance the so-called 'animal magnetism' of the body. By 1843, James Braid had discovered that patients could undergo surgery without being knocked out (literally) and still feel no pain although the discovery of anaesthetics, like ether and chloroform, pushed hypnosis out of the mainstream. But, in the 1950s and 60s, American therapist Milton H. Erickson began to develop the modern form of hypnosis to help him make health-improving suggestions to patients in a trance state.

How does hypnotherapy work?

No one is really sure. One theory is that entering a trance state helps the analytical side of the brain to relax, and the creative half to take over. Others think that it might simply be a matter of suggestion and the patient's own mind willing themselves better.

One of the key principles is that the mind works at different levels of consciousness. It’s thought that, during hypnosis, the conscious mind is put on 'standby', which allows the subconscious brain to become much more susceptible to suggestions from the hypnotherapist.

Research suggests that about one in 10 of us cannot enter a hypnotic state, but of the other 90%, some 10% can enter a trance so deep that it is possible to undergo surgery without conventional anaesthetics.

Most practitioners say that it’s impossible to hypnotise someone against their will, as the subconscious mind is actually very forceful and will not usually listen to unreasonable suggestions. The relationship between the patient and the practitioner has to be a good one. If the patient is at all uncomfortable, then they are unlikely to enter a trance state.

What happens during a treatment?

A typical session with a hypnotherapist might involve the therapist asking you to lie down, close your eyes, and relax. Each therapist has their own unique approach for helping you enter a deeper state of relaxation, like speaking slowly and soothingly, or asking you to tense and relax muscles one after the other. They may ask you to picture a garden, and to imagine yourself relaxing on the lawn among beautiful flowers and absorbing the sun's rays. They may even use a pencil, a light or other object on which you can concentrate to help you focus your mind. Whatever method the hypnotherapist uses, the aim is to help you enter a relaxed state – a 'trance' – in which the mind can begin to heal itself and the body.

What can hypnotherapy help with?

It’s thought that hypnotherapy can help –

Arthritis and aching joints including back pain
Asthma and allergies
Dental surgery
Eating disorders
Fears and phobias
Irritable bowel syndrome
Pre-menstrual syndrome
Sexual problems
Skin complaints
Speech impediments
Stress, anxiety and panic attacks.

Where's the evidence?

The basic assumption that hypnotherapists work by – that the body and mind are inseparable – is also recognised by science. Every tissue, organ and cell is part of the whole body system. It is perhaps the old mind over matter idea, although practitioners believe that in a trance a patient can ‘enter’ their own body and ‘observe’ the tissues and organs. Whether this is simply a metaphorical notion or there really is some way for the mind to see what is going on inside we may never know.

Hypnotherapy is most often used to help people with psychological problems like obsessive thoughts, eating disorders, alcohol problems, and even chocolate addiction. There have been numerous trials to support the idea that disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, many psychosomatic symptoms, and even backache, can be treated by the suggestions of the mind under hypnosis.

What do doctors think of hypnotherapy?

The stage hypnotist has a lot to answer for the public image of hypnotherapy, but as far as the medical profession is concerned hypnosis certainly works. The idea of the mind entering a trance is not at all mystical, and patients actually remain conscious under hypnosis. In fact, we are in and out of trances all day long. Just think – how many times have you driven somewhere on 'autopilot'? That's a kind of trance.

Dr David Oakley, a Clinical Psychologist and Director of the Hypnosis Unit at University College London, believes hypnosis is a very valuable tool for assisting psychological therapists. He points out that if there is a good psychological treatment for a condition then using that treatment while a patient is under hypnosis can be helpful in most cases. The basic idea is that the trance state helps the patient improve imagery, focus their attention and enter a more deeply relaxed state.

What should I look for in a practitioner?

Your doctor can advise you on hypnotherapy. You will often need a referral letter from your GP before a hypnotherapist will see you. But once you have one, selecting a practitioner can be done through the National Council for Hypnotherapy (NCH). You can reach them on 01590 881477, or through their web site which provides a list of practitioners listed on the NCH register.

The British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnosis (BSMDH) also provides information, on 07000 560 309) or at is also available from the British Hypnotherapy Association. From January 2000, all members of the BHA will have to have attended a personal interview and passed a BHA examination testing competence and skill.

You should always check a practitioner's credentials with one of the official associations before making an appointment. If for any reason you are not happy with your treatment even after just one session then do not return to that practitioner.