A state of deep relaxation and focus in which a person is particularly responsive to suggestion. A person trained in inducing hypnosis — a hypnotherapist — can help put people into this state by repeating words or movements. The hypnotherapist can then make suggestions that can ease problems such as phobias, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, stress, and pain and break habits such as smoking and nail-biting. Contrary to the popular perception, hypnotherapists cannot make their subjects act in strange or unnatural ways. In fact, the person being hypnotized is always in full control and can choose to emerge from hypnosis at any time.

Hypnosis has been used to help manage pain during surgery since before the advent of anesthesia in the 19th century. It has gained popularity recently as a cost-effective supplemental treatment for pain and has proved useful for treating pain associated with burns, cancer, surgery, headaches, arthritis, and fibromyalgia. After putting people into a hypnotic state, the hypnotherapist uses imagery and verbal suggestions to help a person experience pain differently, teaching him or her to acknowledge the pain but focus attention away from it. Hypnosis does not work for everyone; some people are more hypnotizable than others. But if hypnosis does help manage a person’s chronic pain, the hypnotherapist will often teach him or her “self-hypnosis” so that the technique can be practiced at home.

Some experts think hypnosis may not be a good idea for people with arthritis because it can mask pain and may therefore cause people to overuse their joints and injure them. People should ask their doctor before trying hypnosis to treat arthritis pain. And if they do try it, they should make sure it is done only by a mental-health professional specifically trained and certified in hypnotherapy.

Robert S. Dinsmoor is a medical writer and editor based in Massachusetts.

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