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Laurance Johnston, Ph.D.

People with SCI often have life-compromising pain. Although various drugs and surgeries have been used to treat this pain, they often have numerous adverse side effects. As a result, there has been a search for alternatives. One such alternative is hypnosis, a trance state characterized by increased susceptibility to suggestion, relaxation, and imagination. As discussed below, research indicates that people with chronic pain – including SCI – can learn self hypnosis to access this trance state to feel more comfortable.

“The trick is not minding that it hurts” – Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia

As in all life, perception molds our reality. For example, a long wait in an express-checkout lane can be viewed as either a pain-in-the-behind irritation or an opportunity to read a trashy tabloid. Likewise, if you get slammed in wheelchair rugby, you’ll probably forget about a nagging allergy headache. The attention you direct to pain or discomfort is energy that fuels it. Hypnosis is like a valve that shuts-off the flow in this fuel-line of consciousness.


University of Washington’s Dr. Mark Jensen has spearheaded efforts to evaluate hypnosis’ potential to reduce SCI-pain:

1) In 2000, he treated four individuals with SCI with four sessions of hypnosis. The participants were evaluated for pain using a 0-10 pain scale (0 = no pain;10 = most intense pain imaginable), and the degree pain interfered with sleep using another 0-10 scale. After hypnotic induction, participants were given various pain-relieving suggestions (see see below). At the end of each session, they were told that they would be able to recreate their hypnotic state by taking and holding a deep breath, as well as listening to an audiotape made from the sessions to reinforce the treatment and their self-hypnosis skills.


Decreased pain “Notice as you relax and feel more comfortable, you feel less and less pain, almost as if the pain were going away, or getting smaller.”
Increased comfort “You can feel more and more comfortable…”
Replacement of pain with other sensations “You can notice how any feelings of pain or discomfort can change…to other feelings… feelings that are not unpleasant…that are more comfortable…like warmth or a very pleasant tingling sensation…”
Ability to ignore pain “As your pain continues to decrease, as you build this barrier between pain and your experience, it is almost like it is muffled…you notice it less and less.”
Displacement “The pain and discomfort that you usually experience can now be directed and moved to a different body part.”
Hypnoanesthesia “It is now time to anaesthetize the site of your pain. Notice how naturally, how easily the area of pain and discomfort is being engulfed in a psychological anesthesia.”

Patient experiences are summarized below:

Patient 1, a 65-year-old woman who sustained an incomplete C-5 injury 43 years earlier, had foot pain building up during the day to a sleep-interfering 6.5 intensity.  After her final session, pain levels dropped to 3.8, and sleep-interference was cut nearly in half. Because she didn’t continue self-hypnosis, her pain eventually returned to pretreatment levels.

Patient 2, a 28-year-old male with a complete C-5 injury from an auto accident 10 years earlier, had stinging leg and hand pain. His pain intensity fell from 2.0 before treatment to 1.5 afterwards, and sleep interference dropped from 3.0 to 1.0. These improvements were maintained a year later.

Patient 3, a 37-year-old male who had a C-4/5 level injury due to gunshot 14 years earlier, had lower back pain. Treatment and daily self hypnosis reduced the pain from 5.0 to 0.5 and eliminated sleep interference. However, levels increased again when he discontinued daily self-hypnosis.

Patient 4, a 42-year-old woman with a T-12/L-1 injury from a fall 17 years previously, experienced painful electrical sensations in her legs. After treatment, her pain intensity dropped from 4.5 to 2.0, and sleep interference decreased from 3.5 to 1.5.

2) In 2005, Jensen used hypnosis to treat pain in 33 individuals with SCI (13 subjects), multiple sclerosis (10), amputation (7), and other disabilities (3). Average pain intensity was assessed before treatment, after 10 sessions, and three months later. Individuals who completed all sessions reported an average 21% reduction in pain, much of which persisted three months later. Those with amputation seemed to have the greatest pain relief, reporting a 43% average reduction in pain compared to only 17% for SCI and 10% for MS.

3) Building upon this study, Jensen evaluated the long-term, pain-relief benefits accruing to the aforementioned individuals who completed the 10 sessions and regularly practiced self-hypnosis. Specifically, pain levels were assessed 3, 6, 9, and 12 months after treatment.  At all follow-up intervals, average pain intensity was lower than that observed before treatment. The percentage reporting a clinically significant reduction in average pain intensity at these follow-up times were 27%, 19%, 19%, and 23%, respectively. Although seemingly modest reductions, participants frequently used self-hypnosis to manage pain flair-ups.  

4) In 2009, a post-doctoral fellow working with Jensen treated a 27-year-old soldier with a C-6 incomplete injury from a gunshot. He could not tolerate PT exercises because they triggered level-10, worst-imaginable pain. In addition to hypnotic pain-relieving suggestions, he was given suggestions concerning overall healing, progression in therapies, and increased self-confidence about his eventual hospital discharge and return to civilian life. Each session ended with post-hypnotic suggestions for continued self-hypnosis practice. After 10 sessions, his pain levels greatly decreased, he could straighten his fingers, and his hands lost their “claw-like” appearance. As a result, he could participate more fully in rehabilitation and reduce pain medications. Six months later, his pain sensitivity had decreased considerably.

5) In 2009, Jensen treated 37 individuals with SCI randomly assigned to receive either hypnosis or biofeedback-relaxation. Unlike drug studies, it is difficult to create a control group for hypnosis because subjects will know if they are being hypnotized and report benefits skewed by that knowledge. The investigators selected biofeedback relaxation as a comparison because, in part, it could be administered in a somewhat similar fashion. In hindsight, it was a questionable choice because it also brought about some pain relief through overlapping mechanisms (e.g., suggestive techniques). Still those who received hypnosis treatment got more pain-reduction benefit than those who received biofeedback.


Reflecting the Buddhist proverb “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional,” life’s fundamental nature is that we all have pain, but the weight we give it, and, in turn, the suffering we cumulatively manifest depends on our consciousness. Although not a cure, hypnosis can transplant the pain from a consciousness where it can flourish to one where it cannot take root.

Adapted from article appearing in October 2012 Paraplegia News (For subscriptions, call 602-224-0500) or go to www.pn-magazine.com