In a new study, researchers found that Hypnotherapy might help relieve irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) complaints for some patients for as long as 9 months after the end of treatment.
The gut-directed hypnotherapy delivered by psychologists appears as effective in group or individual sessions.
This potentially offers a new treatment option for irritable bowel syndrome in primary and secondary care.
IBS affects around 1 in 5 people worldwide and is a persistent and difficult-to-treat condition, with symptoms that can seriously affect quality of life including abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation.
For many patients, drug and dietary treatments are not successful.
Psychological interventions have proven effective, but their use is limited by a shortage of trained therapists.
Hypnotherapy has previously shown promising results for IBS, but the majority of studies have been done in highly specialized centers, and more research is needed into whether hypnotherapy is beneficial in primary and secondary care where most patients are treated.
The current study recruited 354 adults (aged 18-65 years) with IBS who were referred by primary care physicians and hospital specialists to 11 hospitals across the Netherlands between May 2011 and April 2016.
Participants were randomly assigned to receive either 45-minute individual sessions (150 patients) or group sessions (150) of hypnotherapy twice weekly for 6 weeks, or education and supportive care (54).
Hypnotherapy treatment was provided by psychologists who were trained as hypnotherapists and involved a technique of positive visualization during which patients were given suggestions about how they could gain control over their digestive system to reduce feelings of pain and discomfort.
Patients were also given a CD so they could practice self-hypnosis exercises at home for 15-20 minutes every day.
Participants completed assessments on their level of symptom severity, quality of life, psychological symptoms, health-care costs, and work absence at the start of the trial and immediately after treatment (3 months) and again 9 months later, as well as symptom relief immediately after treatment and 9 months later.
Results showed that immediately after treatment, participants in the two hypnotherapy groups reported satisfactory relief at substantially higher rates than those who received educational supportive care, and these benefits persisted for 9 months after the treatment ended.
Nevertheless, satisfactory relief of symptoms was not accompanied by a significant improvement in symptom severity.
Importantly, the findings suggest that group hypnotherapy is as effective as individual sessions, which could enable many more patients with IBS to be treated at a reduced cost.
The study is the largest randomized trial of hypnotherapy for IBS to date, and one of the first conducted in primary care, where the vast majority of IBS patients are treated.
It shows that IBS patients undergoing hypnotherapy reported a greater overall improvement in their condition.
They were more able to cope with and less troubled by their symptoms compared with those who received educational supportive therapy.
However, hypnotherapy did not appear to reduce the severity of symptoms.
While the findings are promising, the team suggests that more research will be needed to test the optimum number of hypnotherapy sessions, the effect that patient expectations may have on treatment outcome, and the extent to which hypnotherapy outcomes are influenced by the magnitude of the psychological complaints of the patient.
Dr. Carla Flik from the University Medical Center Utrecht, Netherlands, led the research.
The findings are published in The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology journal.
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