While some people may view hypnosis as contrived entertainment, it's progressed far from the days of being performed on volunteers in nightclubs. Hypnosis is not hocus pocus; it’s a tool used by an alternative pain management used by professionals to treat pain of all kinds from arthritis to dental procedures.

Joseph Barber, PhD, a clinical professor of anesthesiology and rehabilitation at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, uses hypnosis for pain caused by arthritis. One patient, a 73-year-old grandmother with severe pain from knee osteoarthritis, couldn’t tolerate anti-inflammatory drugs. With just three hypnosis treatments – an unusually fast response – the pain in her knee decreased and she was able to return to normal daily activity. An analysis of 18 studies of hypnosis and pain with more than 900 people conducted by researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York bears out this patient’s experience, showing substantial pain relief in 75 percent of participants.

 So, just what is hypnosis? Hypnotherapists say it’s a way to focus one’s imagination and attention to help alleviate physical and emotional problems. Brain imaging has shown that some hypnotic suggestions reduce activity in brain areas associated with emotional responses to pain, while other suggestions reduce activity in an area of the brain more directly involved with the physical sensation of pain.

 Most hypnotherapists have patients stare at a fixed object, sometimes just a colored thumbtack stuck in a wall. The hypnotherapist then describes relaxing images, such as a walk along a beach, and asks the patient to focus on those images. Next, he uses imagery and suggestions to block out or transform pain, such as, “Lock away the pain in the box in the basement of an abandoned house.”

 While hypnosis typically helps relieve pain in four to 10 sessions, some people benefit faster and others not at all. Practitioners usually teach ways to continue therapy at home, and as long as the techniques are followed, people may not have to return for further sessions.

 To find a qualified hypnotherapist, ask your doctor for a referral or contact the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis,  or the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis Most health insurance companies cover hypnosis for pain therapy, if performed by a medical or psychological professional.