Hypnotherapy is the treatment of a variety of health conditions by hypnotism or by inducing prolonged sleep.

Hypnotherapy is thought to date back to the healing practices of ancient Greece and Egypt. Many religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and others have attributed trance-like behavior to spiritual or divine possession.

An Austrian physician, Franz Mesmer (1734–1815), is credited with being the first person to scientifically investigate the idea of hypnotherapy in 1779 to treat a variety of health conditions. Mesmer studied medicine at the University of Vienna and received his medical degree in 1766.

Mesmer is believed to have been the first doctor to understand the relationship of psychological trauma to illness. He induced a trance-like state, which became known as mesmerization, in his patients to successfully treat nervous disorders. These techniques became the foundation for modern-day hypnotherapy.

Mesmer’s original interest was in the effect of celestial bodies on human lives. He later became interested in the effects of magnetism and found that magnets could have tremendous healing effects on the human body.

Mesmer believed that the human body contained a magnetic fluid that promoted health and well being. It was thought that any blockage to the normal flow of this magnetic fluid would result in illness, and that the use of the Mesmerism technique could restore the normal flow.

Mesmer performed his technique by passing his hands up and down the patient’s body. The technique was supposed to transmit magnetic fluid from his hands to the bodies of his patients.

During this time period, there was no clear delineation between health conditions that were physical or psychological in nature. Although Mesmer did not realize it at that time, his treatments were most effective for those conditions that are now known to be primarily psychosomatic.

Mesmer’s technique appeared to be quite successful in the treatment of his patients, but he was the subject of scorn and ridicule from the medical profession. Because of all the controversy surrounding mesmerism, and because Mesmer’s personality was quite eccentric, a commission was convened to investigate his techniques and procedures.

The very distinguished panel of investigators included Benjamin Franklin, the French chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, and the physician Jacques Guillotin. The commission acknowledged that patients did seem to obtain noticeable relief from their conditions, but the whole idea was dismissed as being medical quackery.

Other pioneers in this field, such as James Braid and James Esdaile, discovered that hypnosis could be used to successfully anesthetize patients for surgeries. James Braid accidentally discovered that one of his patients began to enter a hypnotic state while staring at a fixed light as he waited for his eye examination to begin.

Since mesmerism had fallen out of favor, Braid coined the term hypnotism, which is derived from the Greek word for sleep. Braid also used the techniques of monotony, rhythm, and imitation to assist in inducing a hypnotic state. These techniques are generally still in use.

Around 1900, there were very few preoperative anesthetic drugs available. Patients were naturally apprehensive when facing surgery. One out of 400 patients would die, not from the surgical procedure, but from the anesthesia. Dr. Henry Munro was one of the first physicians to use hypnotherapy to alleviate patient fears about having surgery.

He would get his patients into a hypnotic state and discuss their fears with them, telling them they would feel a lot better following surgery. Ether was the most common anesthetic at that time, and Dr. Munro found that he was able to perform surgery using only about 10% of the usual amount of ether.

It took more than 200 years for hypnotherapy to become incorporated into mainstream medical treatment. In 1955, the British Medical Association approved the use of hypnotherapy as a valid medical treatment, with the American Medical Association (AMA) giving its approval in 1958.


Hypnotherapy is used in a number of fields including psychotherapy, surgery, dentistry, research, and medicine. Hypnotherapy is commonly used as an alternative treatment for a wide range of health conditions, including weight control, pain management, and smoking cessation. It is also used to control pain in a variety of such conditions as headache, facial neuralgia, arthritis, burns, musculoskeletal disorders, childbirth, and many more.

Hypnotherapy is being used in place of anesthesia, particularly in patients who prove to be allergic to anesthetic drugs, for such surgeries as hysterectomies, cesarean sections, certain cardiovascular procedures, thyroidectomy, and others. Dentists use hypnotherapy with success on patients who are allergic to all types of dental anesthetics. Hypnotherapy is also useful in helping patients overcome phobias.

Hypnotherapy is used for nonmedical patients as well as those who wish to overcome bad habits. Hypnotherapy has been shown to help those who suffer from performance anxiety in such activities as sports and speaking in public.

In academic applications, it has also been shown to help with learning, participating in the classroom, concentrating, studying, extending attention span, improving memory, and helping remove mental blocks about particular subjects.

In more general areas, hypnotherapy has been found to be beneficial for such problems as motivation, procrastination, decision-making, personal achievement and development, job performance, buried or repressed memories, relaxation, and stress management.


Hypnotherapy involves achieving a psychological state of awareness that is different from the ordinary state of consciousness. While in a hypnotic state, a variety of phenomena can occur. These phenomena include alterations in memory, heightened susceptibility to suggestion, paralysis, sweating, and blushing. All of these changes can be produced or removed in the hypnotic state. Many studies have shown that roughly 90% of the population is capable of being hypnotized.

This state of awareness can be achieved by relaxing the body, focusing on one’s breathing, and shifting attention away from the external environment. In this state, the patient has a heightened receptivity to suggestion. The usual procedure for inducing a hypnotic trance in another person is by a direct command repeated in a soothing, monotonous tone of voice.

Hypnotherapy demystified


Ideally, the following conditions should be present to successfully achieve a state of hypnosis:
  • willingness to be hypnotized
  • rapport between the patient or client and the hypnotherapist
  • a comfortable environment conducive to relaxation

Hypnotherapy can have negative outcomes. When used as entertainment, people have been hypnotized to say or do things that would normally embarrass them. There have been instances where people already dangerously close to psychological breakdown have been pushed into an emotional crisis during what was supposed to be a harmless demonstration of hypnosis.

A statement from the World Hypnosis Organization (WHO) warns against performing hypnosis on patients suffering from psychosis, organic psychiatric conditions, or antisocial personality disorders. Because there are no standard licensing requirements, there is a risk that the hypnotist will have difficulty in controlling or ending a hypnotic state that has been induced in the patient.

There is a commonly held belief that a person cannot be coerced into doing things that he or she would not normally do while under hypnosis. The hynotherapist should take care, however, not to give suggestions during hypnosis that are contrary to the patient’s moral code.

Many religions do not condone the practice of hypnotherapy. Leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Science religions oppose the use of hypnotherapy and advise their members to avoid it completely, whether for entertainment or therapy.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints approves it for medical purposes, but cautions members against allowing themselves to be hypnotized for entertainment or demonstration purposes.

In 1985, the AMA convened a commission that warned against using hypnotherapy to aid in recollection of events. The commission cited studies that showed the possibility of hypnotic recall resulting in confabulation or an artificial sense of certainty about the course of events. As a result, many states limit or prohibit testimony of hypnotized witnesses or victims.

Side effects

Experiments have been conducted to determine any side effects of hypnotherapy. Some subjects have reported side effects such as headache, stiff neck, drowsiness, cognitive distortion or confusion, dizziness, and anxiety. However, most of these effects cleared up within several hours of the hypnotherapy session.

Research and general acceptance

Research on the effectiveness of hypnotherapy on a variety of medical conditions is extensive. In one study, the use of hypnotherapy did not seem to alter the core symptoms in the treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); however, it did seem useful in managing the associated symptoms, including sleep disturbances and tics.

Hypnotherapy is being studied in children who have common chronic problems and to aid in relieving pain. Children are particularly good candidates for hypnotherapy because their lack of worldly experience enables them to move easily between the rational world and their imagination.

Studies with children have shown responses to hypnotherapy ranging from diminished pain and anxiety during a number of medical procedures; a 50% range in reduction of symptoms or a complete resolution of a medical condition; and a reduction in use of antinausea medication and vomiting during chemotherapy for childhood cancers.

In 2002, a report compiled several study results on hypnosis. One recent study evaluated how self-hypnosis relieved pain and anxiety in patients undergoing angioplasty with local anesthesia. Those patients needed less sedation and less procedure time. Another study found that pregnant adolescents counseled in hypnosis needed less anesthesia during delivery and less pain medication afterward. They also left the hospital sooner.

The use of hypnotherapy with cancer patients is another area being investigated. A meta-analysis of 116 studies showed positive results of using hypnotherapy with cancer patients. Ninety-two percent showed a positive effect on depression; 93% showed a positive effect on physical well-being; 81% showed a positive effect on vomiting; and 92% showed a positive effect on pain.

In 2002, the National Hospice and Palliative Care Association reported that it recognizes hypnosis therapy as one effective tool to help terminally ill patients deal with their fears, feelings, and emotions; and to promote relaxation.

Training and certification

In the early twenty-first century, anyone could be a hypnotherapist. It is very easy to learn how to hypnotize someone, and the fact that hypnotism dates back to ancient times proves the ease with which a trance can be induced.

There are no licensing procedures in place that limit the practice of hypnotherapy to medical professionals. Hypnotherapists are not regulated in any way; there are no uniform education or certification requirements to perform hypnotherapy.

The National Board for Hypnotherapy and Hypnotic Anaesthesiology (NBHA) has specific membership requirements and also offers varying levels of professional recognition. Certification as a Clinical Hypnotherapist (C.Ht.) requires a minimum of 200 hours of classroom instruction and, independent study and life learning experience in the medical, dental, psychological, or peer counseling professions.

Certification as a Medical Hypnotherapist (C.M.H.) requires meeting the standards for the Clinical Hypnotherapist level plus attending a residential training course or home study training course that requires a clinical practicum/internship approved by the NBHA.

Certification as a Hypno-Anesthesia Therapist (Ct.H.A.) requires the successful completion of an NBHA-approved course in Visualization and Guided Imagery for Pain Management, and a passing score on the examination. Certification as a Registered Hypnotic Anaesthesiologist (R.H.A.) requires two years of continuous membership in the NBHA at the Ct.H.A. level, and completion of advanced training seminars.

The highest level of certification that can be obtained in this organization is Fellow (F.B.H.A.). Requirements for achieving this level of certification include membership at the R.H.A. level and a graduate degree from an accredited university, plus submitting a comprehensive thesis.

There is an ongoing debate regarding the issue of clinically trained versus lay hypnotists. The position of the American Society of Clinical Hypnotists (ASCH) is that the training of lay hypnotists is unethical. This organization supports only the training of those persons who are pursuing an advanced degree in the health sciences.

ASCH further believes that hypnotherapy is a treatment modality to be used in conjunction with other forms of treatment, not a treatment that stands alone. Medical professionals believe that lay hypnotists keep the view of hypnotherapy in low esteem by the general public. They also believe that their practices are impacted economically by the lay hypnotists.

ASCH and the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis (SCEH) are two organizations that are trying to set up formal screening, training, and accrediting standards. Both of these organizations offer formal training to medical professionals at their annual meetings.