Hypnotherapy has struggled for scientific acceptance ever since Franz Mesmer claimed in the 18th century that he could cure all manner of ills with what he termed “animal magnetism”. “The whole field is plagued by people who don’t feel research is necessary,” says Peter Whorwell of the University of Manchester in the UK.
Whorwell has spent much of his professional life building a body of evidence for the use of hypnosis to treat just one condition: irritable bowel syndrome. IBS is considered a “functional” disorder – a rather derogatory term used when a patient suffers symptoms but doctors can’t see anything wrong. Whorwell felt that his patients, some of whom had such severe symptoms they were suicidal, were being let down by the medical profession. “I got into hypnosis because the conventional treatment of these conditions is abysmal.”
Whorwell gives patients a brief tutorial on how the gut functions, then gets them to use visual or tactile sensations – the feeling of warmth, for example – to imagine their bowel working normally. It seems to work – IBS is the only condition for which hypnosis is recommended by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. Despite this, Whorwell still has trouble convincing doctors to prescribe it. “We’ve produced a lot of incontrovertible research,” he says. “Yet people are still loath to agree to it.”