Irritable bowel syndrome is a chronic condition that affects many people across the world. Due to symptoms such as abdominal pain, this disorder can have a big impact on life quality. New research, however, reveals that hypnotherapy can improve life for those with the condition.

Can hypnotherapy truly relieve IBS symptoms?

People with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can experience symptoms such as abdominal pain and abnormal bowel movements to various degrees of severity, and they can also face mental health problems, including anxiety and depression.

Some common approaches to managing IBS are by carefully controlling one’s diet, improving one’s lifestyle choices, and, if necessary, seeking mental health therapy.

In the past, some research has suggested that people with IBS may also benefit from hypnotherapy sessions. Now, specialists at the University Medical Center Utrecht and other institutions in the Netherlands have decided to delve deeper into the question of whether hypnotherapy can improve IBS symptoms — and if so, in what way. The researchers recently conducted a randomized controlled trial, the findings of which now appear in The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology.

Improved symptom relief

The study assessed the efficacy of individual and group hypnotherapy in IBS. It is the largest study to date to look into this issue.
In the study, the researchers worked with 354 participants aged 18–65 with IBS.

The scientists randomly selected participants to take part in one of three interventions:

– individual 45 minute hypnotherapy sessions twice per week for 6 weeks (150 participants)
– group hypnotherapy sessions with the same timeframe (150 participants)
– dedicated educational supportive care sessions (54 participants)

For the delivery of the hypnotherapy sessions, the team recruited psychologists who had trained in hypnotherapy. During the sessions, the hypnotherapists applied techniques of positive visualization, providing suggestions about pain and discomfort management.
They also gave the participants CDs containing materials that would allow them to practice hypnosis techniques on their own for 15–20 minutes on a daily basis.

The researchers asked the participants to fill in questionnaires assessing various factors relevant to the study — including the severity of their IBS symptoms, their quality of life, how much they spent on healthcare, and how often they had to miss work due to the condition.

The assessments took place at baseline, at the 3-month mark, and at the 9-month mark. The team also evaluated to what extent participants experienced relief immediately after the intervention (at the 3-month mark) and then again 9 months later.

The scientists found that the people with IBS who had participated in hypnotherapy — whether individual or group-based — experienced the most satisfactory degree of symptom relief, compared with participants in the educational supportive care group.

Participants who underwent hypnotherapy were still enjoying the benefits 9 months after the treatment. However, the researchers claim that despite reporting satisfactory rates of symptom relief, the participants did not actually see a significant improvement in symptom severity as such.

“We do not know exactly how gut-directed hypnotherapy works,” says lead researcher Dr. Carla Flik, “but it may change patients’ mindset and internal coping mechanisms, enabling them to increase their control over autonomic body processes, such as how they process pain and modulate gut activity.”

Group sessions just as promising

Other than symptom relief, the tested-for factors — including quality of life, psychological problems, healthcare costs, and work absence — remained roughly the same among all the participants following the interventions.

The researchers also admit that their study faced a few limitations. For example, some participants — 22 (15 percent) of those in the individual hypnotherapy group, another 22 (15 percent) of those in the group hypnotherapy sessions, and 11 (20 percent) of those in the educational supportive care group — dropped out of the study.

Also, a significant number of participants did not manage to fill in all the questionnaires, which, the researchers say, may have impacted the findings. However, the researchers note that the results they recorded in the recent study may, in fact, have been an underestimation, since the hypnotherapists did not have previous experience in treating people with IBS, specifically. Also, the participants only received six hypnotherapy sessions, which is only half the number of sessions that a person would normally expect to receive.

“Our study indicates that hypnotherapy could be considered as a treatment option for patients with IBS, irrespective of symptom severity and IBS sub-type. It is also promising to see that group hypnotherapy is as effective as individual sessions, which may mean that more people could be treated with it at lower cost, should it be confirmed in further studies.”

“What’s striking about these findings is the extent to which patients’ perception of their illness has an effect on their suffering, and that their perception of symptoms appears to be as important as actual symptom severity,” adds Dr. Flik.

By: Maria Cohut