Tummy troubles? NBC News touts hypnosis as ‘the answer’ for millions

Michael Joyce produces multimedia at HealthNewsReview.org and tweets as @mlmjoyce

NBC Nightly News wants you to know this:

“Hypnotherapy can be an effective treatment for heartburn and other stomach conditions. It’s a powerful alternative treatment, backed with plenty of scientific evidence”

What other conditions?

Apparently, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome to name a few.

How does it work?

“Hypnosis optimizes the brain depth function.”

What scientific evidence?

  • an anecdotal account of one patient with “a genetic condition that is associated with many GI symptoms” whose abdominal pain and weight loss improved with hypnotherapy.
  • assurance by a hypnotherapist that this “brain-gut therapy” is based on “a robust amount of literature behind hypnotherapy beginning in the 1980’s”
  • the above phrase …”backed with plenty of scientific evidence” … actually links to an abstract by the aforementioned hypnotherapist in the text version of the story. She describes a single case study involving the use of hypnotherapy for esophageal symptoms (“While the pathophysiology is likely multifactorial, two critical factors are believed to drive esophageal symptoms—visceral hypersensitivity and symptom hypervigilance”)

What’s wrong here? Several things.

First, we are promised hypnotherapy is “a science-based system that can work wonders treating a variety of stomach problems” but no scientific studies are offered. We are led to believe that hypnosis “optimizes the brain depth function” but have no idea where that phrase comes from, or what it means. Instead, we are given the anecdotal testimony of a single psychologist — obviously a supporter of this approach — and a single patient. We are told nothing about the patient’s condition, only that her symptoms improved. No other expert sources are called upon to corroborate or challenge the framing.

Second, we are told “studies show more than three quarters of patients experience at least 50 percent reduction in symptoms”. No reference is cited. What conditions? What symptoms? Most of the studies I found looking at hypnotherapy and gastrointestinal symptoms are based on small numbers of patients using questionnaires to track their symptoms.

Third, the words used by the reporter are confusing — “tummy … gut … stomach … intestines” — all of which are alleged to be targeted by “brain-gut therapy.” Yet no effort is made to distinguish which conditions affect which parts of the gastrointestinal system, nor is there any discussion about what functional symptoms are; that is, physical complaints thought to have a strong psychological component.

Finally, taken as a whole, the variety of gastrointestinal conditions we’re told hypnosis can help, are ubiquitous and affect millions of people. To promise “hypnosis might be the answer,” and provide no evidence to back this up, is irresponsible.


Addendum: NBC News, unfortunately, is not an outlier in its shoddy coverage of health care interventions. We’ve spent more than 10 years and many thousands of words cataloging the sorry state of most TV health journalism. Take a look here.

Also, we had  psychiatrist, Susan Molchan, MD — a regular contributor to HealthNewsReview.org — weigh in on this issue. Here’s her take:

“I’m not a specialist in this area, and my initial skepticism turned to surprise when just a quick search showed that decent evidence (randomized controlled trials and long-term results) does indeed exist for using hypnosis (and other psychological treatments) in the treatment of irritable bowel disease; although not so much in the other problems mentioned. No one is sure how it helps, perhaps through allaying anxiety and depression, or perhaps by acting directly on the gut, calming inflammation.

Including reference to real evidence in the NBC report, rather than simply the testimony of a single practitioner, would done much to bolster the story.

There is a paper from the psychologist featured in the video citing small studies showing some prolonged remission for patients with irritable bowel disease such as ulcerative colitis, but more work needs to be done. It’s more difficult to obtain funding for such work than for drug-based treatments, as they’re no large corporations likely to fund — or profit — from such studies. Also, some patients like the idea of simply taking a pill for their problem, rather than going to a clinic for several months, and facing “homework” assigned to help change their stress/anxiety/physical responses over time.

Media outlets could help make evidence-based, non-drug-based treatments more acceptable and less relegated to the fringe bin if readers can truly discern their value. This requires including scientific evidence and views from independent experts, as mentioned above.”

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