When you think about hypnotherapy, it’s probably in the context of a swinging pocket watch and a voice intoning, “you are getting very sleepy.” But neither watches nor sleep are part of hypnotherapy or clinical hypnosis, which is the therapeutic use of hypnosis. Here’s what research suggests—and what you probably don’t know—about this complementary therapy.

You Are Aware and in Control

During hypnotherapy, the practitioner will use words to help you relax deeply, then offer suggestions through stories or mental images for coping with your health concerns. Hypnosis doesn’t—as some may fear—put you under the hypnotist’s control or make you unaware of what’s happening around you. In fact, you’re hyperfocused, like being engrossed in a great book or movie.

“Other things fade into the background, so you can more easily respond to therapeutic suggestions,” says Gary Elkins, Ph.D., the director of the Mind-Body Medicine Research Laboratory at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Afterward, you don’t suddenly “come to,” wondering where you’ve been and what you did. Most people recall sessions clearly.

Reactions Can Vary

Almost anyone can be hypnotized to some extent, but some people are more receptive than others. “There’s a range,” Elkins says. “Most of us are in the middle, about 10 percent are very high, and about 10 percent are very low.”

Most studies find that four or five sessions are enough to make a big impact, though people who are in the lower range might need more to get the desired effect, Elkins says. People can often also practice on their own at home if necessary.  

It’s No Magic Bullet, But . . .

Hypnosis seems to be more effective at easing involuntary symptoms—such as hot flashes and pain­—than it is at helping people overcome unhealthy habits such as overeating, smoking, and alcohol addiction. Here’s where the research is strongest:

Irritable bowel syndrome. British researchers first studied the use of hypnotherapy for people with IBS—a disorder characterized by diarrhea, constipation, and cramps—in 1984. Those who had treatment reported substantial benefits; those given a placebo and under­going psychotherapy didn’t. A recent review confirms those benefits, finding substantial relief reported in all 35 studies analyzed.

Chronic pain. A study of 100 veterans with lower-back pain found that people who underwent hypnosis reported less pain and better sleep than those treated with biofeedback, which can include deep breathing and muscle relaxation. Other research suggests that it may help ease pain from arthritis, fibromyalgia, and other conditions.

Cancer-treatment side effects. Researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City investigated whether hypnotherapy helps cancer patients with the pain, nausea, and anxiety that often accompany breast cancer surgery. In the study, women undergoing breast biopsy or lumpectomy who received hypnosis needed less anesthesia and reported less pain, nausea, and fatigue than women who did not.

Hot flashes. Elkins trained 187 menopausal women in hypnotherapy. After four weeks, sensations of heat and sweating had dropped by about 70 percent. After three months of hypnotherapy at home with audiotapes, the decrease averaged 80 percent. And many women slept better.

So, Should You Consider It?

In some cases, yes, says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., the chief medical adviser for Consumer Reports. “In selected patients with certain complaints, hypnotherapy can be a boon and, what’s more, virtually without side effects,” he says. 

If You Decide to Try It

  • Talk with your doctor first, especially if you have major depression or another significant mental health disorder.
  • Find certified hypnotherapists through the Society for Clinical & Experimental Hypnosis or the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis. They have passed a certification exam.
  • Look for practitioners who are also licensed in such fields as social work and nursing.
  • Ask whether your insurance plan will cover hypnotherapy. It might if it’s part of treatment offered by a certified healthcare provider who takes your insurance. 

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the September 2016 Issue of Consumer Reports on Health.