Hypnosis for Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Posted on December 23, 2011


Press TV

Dateline: 1 November 2011 // Posted by: Hannah Pearsall
Source: Reuters, Press TV, ONLINE – International News Network

Story: “Hypnosis, even in ‘real world,’ may help IBS”

Summary: For those with particularly difficult cases of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), standard medical treatment tends not to alleviate discomfort. Studies since the 1980s have documented that with these difficult cases, hypnosis of patients seems to have positive effects. Recently, new experimentations approached hypnotherapy from a “real world” perspective, examining how patients responded to therapies within their community, rather than in large medical test centers.

While the figures were statistically less significant in this study than in the past, professor of medicine Olafur Palsson stated that the study proved hypnosis has real-life implications.  If standard medical care does not aid patients, Palsson claimed that psychological approaches such as hypnotherapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy might be beneficial.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy attempts to alter the way people think and behave; thereby changing their health and aiding their irritable bowel syndrome. There have been no studies yet in comparing the reliability of cognitive-behavioral therapy to hypnotherapy.

Hypnotherapy for IBS is meant to give the patient a feeling of control. It is unclear why this method tends to produce positive results, but the current studies show that benefits are long-lasting. While hypnotherapy does not claim to rid patients of their IBS, it is meant to alleviate symptoms and allow for much happier lives.

Why is this PseudoNews? The first indicator of scientific questionableness occurs when it is revealed that the disparity between the control group and the hypnosis group is not statistically significant, yet it is still asserted that the studies were indicative of success. Furthermore, this is reinforced with the statement that the new case studies were far less significant than previous studies’ findings. While the information seems to reveal that the case study showed inconsistencies in comparison to previous studies on the topic, the article determined that the study confirmed the legitimacy of hypnotherapy for relieving IBS.

Secondly, it is revealed that it is unknown why the practice of hypnotherapy tends to alleviate IBS. The article first suggests, “that hypnosis might change pain sensitivity in the intestines,” but then debunks its own claim, stating, “but research suggests that is not what’s going on.” The article fails to describe, however, any other possible suggestions, leaving the reliability of hypnotherapy open to question.

A look into previous studies on hypnotherapy for IBS formulates similar conclusions. A 2006 paper in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine reviews 22 case studies on this subject. Out of the 22, seven were excluded for their lack of controlled trials. The conclusion was that hypnosis seemed to be effective, but that efficacy could not be determined because of the necessary exclusion of so many trials. Similarly, in a 2007 review in the British Medical Journal, 10 of 18 trials were found effective but this again was insufficient for determining overall efficacy. From this information, it can be surmised that the article in question made a jump into claiming legitimate benefits without substantial support.

What features of pseudoscience are on show? First, there is a clear display of vagueness in measurement in this study. The patients were documented according to what is referred to as a “symptom score,” which indicates that the patients were surveyed on their discomfort. This leads to the conclusion that the patients were giving anecdotal evidence for this study, which is far less reliable than empirical evidence when it comes to making a scientific claim. It must also be noted that the sample sizes of patients in both the studies referenced were much too small to come to an accurate conclusion: in the first study, 90 patients were recorded, and in the second study there were only 48. The article itself denotes that the findings were not “statistically significant,” and therefore the outcomes “could have been due to chance.”

The hypnosis experiments gave patients “suggestions for normalizing their bowel function – like images of a river ‘floating smoothly’.” Since the cause of IBS is unknown, researchers have yet to conclude why hypnosis seems to work at treating severe cases. The most parsimonious reaction would be that the correlation is simply a coincidence, since there is not enough data to suggest that hypnosis is a cure for IBS. Still, Olafur S. Palsson suggests that hypnosis is an effective relief despite the lack of evidence to support his claim. This represents a case of the argument from ignorance. Since the experiment did not show any indication that hypnosis did not help with IBS, Palsson assumed that this meant hypnosis did help with IBS. However, with the information that has been given, it is clear that there is no evidence either for or against the assertion that hypnosis aids in IBS relief. The claim is simply unproven, but Palsson is making the error that what is unproven must be true.

It must be noted, then, that Palsson has some motivation behind his claims: although the article states that he was not involved with the study mentioned, it also states that he “researches and uses hypnosis therapy in treating IBS.” Since he uses hypnosis therapy, it can be assumed that he supports its use and believes that the procedure works in alleviating IBS pain. Thus, although he was not part of the study, Palsson’s claims represent a very strong confirmation bias, in which Palsson interprets the unproven data to aid his own hypothesis that hypnosis is actually helpful..

The moral of the story: Just because something doesn’t look wrong doesn’t mean that it is right. Studies must have large data samples and empirical evidence before they can be considered scientifically commendable. For now, hypnosis treatment is up in the air in terms of the treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.