If you’re looking for a noninvasive, nonmedicinal way to manage the pain that comes along with a chronic condition such as rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, hypnosis is probably the last thing on your mind.

That’s not surprising, considering popular culture has given hypnosis something of a bad rap. We’ve all seen movies or TV shows where a doctor swings a watch in front of his unsuspecting victim’s face, tells her she’s “getting very sleepy,” then forces her to flap her arms and cluck like a chicken.

Forget all that, say today’s practitioners, who are using hypnosis to give patients fighting chronic pain an additional weapon in their arsenal.

Just Relax

Jeffrey B. Feldman, PhD, an assistant professor of neuropsychology at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., became interested in hypnosis during his internship at New York Univerity in the 1970s. The practice has come a long way from its authoritarian “you will listen to my words, you will hear every word I say, it will go right to your unconscious, you will do every thing I say” roots, he says.

Hypnosis isn’t about convincing patients they don’t feel pain, Feldman says, it’s about helping them manage the fear and anxiety they feel related to that pain.

“Hypnosis redirects your attention; redirects the perceptual focus of sensation,” says Feldman, who uses hypnosis to treat chronic pain patients at Wake Forest’s Center for Worker Health. “It may first relax or quiet your nervous system so you’re not as reactive to the pain.

In fact, a hypnosis session, which usually lasts 10-20 minutes, is likely to start out by having the patient relax by focusing on his breathing. Then the hypnotist will ask him to imagine a pleasant place, and describe it in detail.

“I’m refocusing them from something that’s going to trigger negative emotions to something that’s going to activate positive emotions, such as being at the beach,” Feldman says. “The analogy I sometimes use is we can turn the dial down on the volume of the TV, but we can also change the channel so you can shift from what might be an unpleasant here and now to someplace you might enjoy being.”

In other words, if your mind is off to the beach, and you’re imagining the warmth of the sun, the cool of the breeze, the sand at your feet, you’ll be less focused on your pain – and ready for the indirect suggestion on how to react to pain in the future.

That suggestion might sound something like this, Feldman says: “You will continue to feel this same sensation of pain, but you’ll be much less distressed about it, much calmer, much more at ease, not worried about it.”