Alexis Makris, a 19-year-old hairdresser’s apprentice from Stuttgart, Germany, is jogging along a sunny beach in Greece. He’s not interested in the cold steel hook poking around in his upper left jaw, or the latex-covered fingers of the dentist wielding the instrument in his mouth. He’s too occupied with the smell of the salt sea air and the feel of the warm sand on his feet. When the tug of the wisdom tooth being pulled from his mouth becomes a little too insistent, he picks up his pace. As the tooth is finally yanked out, accompanied by a small gush of bright red blood, Makris is still running, oblivious to any pain.
Of course, Makris is jogging down that sandy strand only in his mind. His body is stretched out on a reclining chair in the Stuttgart office of dentist Albrecht Schmierer, who has just extracted Makris’ wisdom tooth because it was crowding out its neighbors. No anesthetic was used to make the procedure bearable. Instead, Makris was induced by hypnosis to concentrate on his favorite place (that Greek beach) and his favorite sport (running). While under hypnosis, he heard everything that was happening and felt the pressure and ache in his jaw but, in his words, he didn’t pay any attention to it. I was there but I wasn’t there. And I didn’t even notice when the tooth was actually pulled. It was awesome.
Increasingly, dentists, physicians and surgeons are using hypnosis to replace, or at least reduce, the use of painkillers as well as general and local anesthetics. Hypnosis may not be the method of choice for major operations, but for a growing number of procedures ranging from kidney stone fragmentation to minor surgery to childbirth it has proved an effective alternative to conventional sedatives and analgesics. Hypnosis is real, says psychiatrist David Spiegel, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine. It’s no less palpable an analgesic than medication.
Many people are allergic to painkillers and anesthetics, so hypnosis is a crucial option for them. But hypnosis can also help prevent or reduce unwanted side effects. Makris, for example, doesn’t have a numb or swollen cheek. It’s the injection of anesthetics itself that disturbs the circulation and causes the tissue to swell, explains Schmierer, president of the German Society for Dental Hypnosis. People plagued by fear of needles or fear of going to the dentist also benefit from hypnotherapy, he adds.
Studies have confirmed these and other effects. Marie-Elisabeth Faymonville, an anesthetist at Leige University Hospital in Belgium, has used hypnosis during dozens of thyroidectomies, surgical removal of the thyroid gland. All her patients not only reported a very pleasant experience but had significantly less post-operative pain. They were also able to leave the hospital sooner and return to work faster than patients who received standard sedation for the same surgery, resulting in cost savings for hospitals and health-care insurers.
Hypnosis from the Greek word hypnos, meaning sleep was used as medical treatment as far back as the ancient Greeks. In mid-19th-century India, British physician James Esdaile first employed it during surgery. But after ether, chloroform and laughing gas were introduced, the practice was forgotten. In following decades, hypnosis largely fell into disuse, acquiring connotations of quackery and stage trickery. Only after American psychiatrist Milton Erickson rediscovered the technique in the 1950s did hypnosis become accepted again as a means of medical, dental and psycho-therapeutic practice.
Next page: What happens under hypnosis?