Going under the knife while under the spell

By Jeremy Laurance

A British surgeon will today attempt to carry out the first operation to be broadcast on live television using hypnosis in place of anaesthetic.

Tom Hennigan, consultant surgeon at the Princess Royal Hospital, Farnborough, Kent, will this morning (NZ time) perform a hernia repair involving an incision in the groin using the technique of "hypnosurgery".

A hypnotist, John Butler, will induce a state of "deep relaxation" in the unnamed patient for the duration of the 45-minute procedure to dull the pain.

The operation will be broadcast live on More 4, the Channel 4 digital channel, as part of a two-hour investigation into the role of hypnosis in health care.

Hypnotism is used in Belgium and other parts of Europe and studies suggest not using anaesthetic can speed recovery and reduce time spent in hospital.

Irish surgeon Jack Gibson performed more than 4000 procedures in the 1950s and 1960s with patients under hypnosis, including plastic surgery and amputations. But associations with stage hypnotism have kept the practice at the margins of medicine.

Mr Hennigan, who regularly performs hernia operations, said people expressed horror at the idea of an operation without anaesthetic.

"They tell you it is impossible. But if there is a potentially powerful effect here then we should explore it. Hypnosurgery is being used all over the world and people say they have less post-operative pain and faster recovery. The numbers are small so it could be time for a larger trial."

The operation will follow the standard hernia repair procedure and an anaesthetist will be present throughout to step in if the pain gets too much for the patient. Hernias are normally performed under either general or local anaesthesia, with a 50-50 split between the two, Mr Hennigan said.

"I am a typical sceptical surgeon. I shall do what I do every day," he said.

"The hypnotist's job is to demonstrate, if he does his job well, that the patient won't need anaesthetic."

No swinging pendulums or similar devices would be used to induce the hypnotic state in the patient, said Mr Butler. Instead it would rely on the power of words.

"Pendulums and metronomes are the paraphernalia of the stage show. Contrary to popular opinion, a person under hypnosis is never in a coma or asleep. They are in a state of deep relaxation and as they go deeper they become more suggestible."

Preparation for the surgery would begin about 10 minutes before the operation and the hypnotic state would be maintained throughout.

"I will give the patient a lot of suggestions that their sensations are disappearing, they are relaxing and they are losing their feelings. Then I will reassure them that they will recover well and they will feel comfortable. When the operation is over I will give them a count of five and they will come back to being fully alert."

Mr Butler, who has practised hypnotherapy on the National Health Service for chronic pain and other ailments for more than 20 years, said "virtually everybody" could reach levels of relaxation deep enough to enable them to undergo procedures that in normal circumstances would cause them pain.

Others claim only 10 per cent of the population are sufficiently susceptible.

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