When Christine Walsh was told that a hypnotherapist could cure her irritable bowel syndrome, she was sceptical. But after being racked with violent cramping stomach pains for six years, she was ready to try anything.
The 52-year-old office administrator was referred to the clinic of Professor Peter Whorwell, a gastro-enterologist who sees some of the most difficult cases of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in the country.
IBS is the most common gut condition and affects up to one in five people at some time, often between the ages of 25 and 45. Women are more often affected than men.
People with IBS suffer abdominal cramps, bloating, abdominal distension, diarrhoea and constipation.
For many patients there is a range of drugs that bring relief, but not a cure.
However, for a significant minority nothing seems to work. But by using hypnotherapy, Prof Whorwell and his team have cured hundreds of patients.
Despite his success, and numerous trials to show his method works, the use of hypnotherapy for treating irritable bowel syndrome has not yet been widely accepted in the NHS.
Dr John Bennett, chairman of CORE, the Digestive Diseases Foundation, says: ‘Hypnotherapy does seem to work for some patients. There is no doubt that Professor Whorwell’s team of therapists have successfully helped patients where drug treatments have failed.’ Around eight to ten million people in the UK are, to varying degrees, affected by IBS. But about half fail to respond to drugs, and a million of them – including Christine – are defined as ‘difficult’ to treat.
These are the patients Prof Whorwell believes are most likely to benefit from hypnotherapy.
For some, the treatment – which consists of one-hour sessions for up to 12 weeks – can bring about an almost permanent cure.
Patients were asked to assess their symptoms, quality of life and levels of anxiety and depression before and after treatment – and for up to six years after completing the course.
The majority found hypnotherapy reduced the severity of their IBS symptoms, and continued to do so for years. Even those who said the effect began to wear off with time found the treatment was still working fairly well after five years.
Hypnotherapy also seemed to bring a significant reduction in levels of anxiety and depression.
During treatment sessions, patients are worked into a deeply relaxed state but are not asleep as in traditional hypnosis. They are encouraged to focus on their gut and view it as a river.
The aim is to make the river flow smoothly. If there is a blockage or a flood, they are asked to visualise a way the problem can be solved. Sessions with a therapist, interspersed with home practice using a CD, are aimed at ‘retraining’ a patient’s gut.
The therapy has proved highly effective, with a recent study showing it had helped 71 per cent of patients for up to five years afterwards.
The centre at Manchester’s Withington Hospital is the only one of its kind in the UK and treats around 160 patients each year.
‘We are helping people control what’s going on in their bodies, and telling them they can manage their symptoms,’ says Vivien Miller, one of the team of hypnotherapists.
Trials of Prof Whorwell’s method have consistently shown impressive results, and he travels the world teaching the technique to other doctors.
He became interested in the potential of hypnotherapy for IBS more than 20 years ago, and says: ‘IBS is a nuisance to control. There are no effective treatments, so I thought we should try hypnotherapy.’ There are a few theories as to why it works. One is that by making people less anxious, the gut becomes less sensitive and so symptoms are reduced.
Another is that it has an effect on a part of the brain which processes pain. Fortunately, a substantial number of patients respond to drugs or are able to manage their IBS because it is infrequent. But for Christine, hypnotherapy has been a godsend.
Married and living in Greater Manchester, she had been suffering badly from IBS following a hysterectomy six years ago.
Surgery on the abdomen can be a trigger – doctors think internal scarring from surgery might be the cause – and Christine’s symptoms started a few weeks after her operation.
‘I would have violent cramping in my tummy at least once, sometimes twice a week,’ she says. ‘It got to the stage where I had to take the day off work when I had an attack and rest until the symptoms subsided.
‘It was like a bad migraine and affected my social life and ruined holidays.’ Christine was diagnosed with IBS by her GP. She says: ‘She tried me on various drugs. They brought some relief, but the pain was still severe and for six years I endured it because there didn’t seem to be any other option. I was referred to a consultant and eventually was sent to see Prof Whorwell.
‘He prescribed hypnotherapy – and I was sceptical. But within a few weeks of starting my one-to-one sessions at the hospital, my symptoms became less severe and my attacks less frequent. And after six months they were gone completely.
‘You have to work at the hypnotherapy outside hospital sessions and use the techniques you are taught.
‘My way of seeing off an attack was to start practising what I’d learned. I would put my hand on my tummy and visualise it as a peaceful river, to calm it down. It really works.’
IBS: THE FACTS
Although the exact cause of IBS is unknown, the condition is thought to be caused by a combination of factors including abnormal movements of the intestines and altered sensation of the gut. Some people develop IBS following gut infections and food poisoning. It isn’t possible to prevent IBS from developing. However, certain things can trigger attacks for sufferers and should be avoided. These include stress, eating irregular meals and, in some cases, a lack of dietary fibre. IBS doesn’t develop into bowel cancer.
Sufferers commonly experience abdominal cramps that may be eased by passing wind or passing a motion; bloating and abdominal distension; diarrhoea, constipation, or alternating diarrhoea and constipation; or a feeling of incomplete emptying of the rectum. Peppermint oil and antispasmodic medication relieve abdominal pain. If constipation is a problem then increasing fluid, fibre and activity, as well as taking a gentle laxative, may be recommended.
IBS Network is the national patient charity – 0114 272 3253
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