No brain, no pain: Hypnosis can replace anesthesia in brain surgery – study

© Emmanuel Dunand
For many people, the idea of being awake while your skull is cut open sounds like something straight out of a horror movie. However, 37 people decided to forgo anesthetics for brain surgery and opted to receive hypnosis instead.

Hypnosis in surgery is not a new concept. In 1864 a Scottish surgeon named James Esdaile reported “80 percent surgical anesthesia using hypnosis as the sole anesthetic for amputations in India,” according to the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. In 1957, Dr. William Saul Kroger caught the New York Time’s attention when he used hypnosis on a breast cancer patient, the Miami Herald reported.

However, Dr. Ilyess Zemmoura of Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Tours and his colleagues have been evaluating the effects of using anesthesia since 2011. Focusing primarily on brain cancer patients, he and his team have been conducting awake operations to remove brain cancer tumors.

Certain brain operations require patients to be awake for at least part of the process. These surgeries are very tricky, according to the International Business Times, and surgeons depend on certain responses and interactions to avoid damaging critical parts of the brain, such as the eloquent cortex.

Typically when a patient undergoes brain surgery, they will be put to sleep at the beginning of the operation prior to the skull being opened, woken up in the middle to ensure responses are normal, then put back to sleep again. This process is known as asleep-awake-asleep ‒ or AAA – which seems like an onomatopoeia when thinking about waking up in the middle of brain surgery.

Zemmoura and other researchers detailed the hypnosis process to a total of 48 patients, according to Ars Technica. Hypnosis sedation, much like AAA sedation, begins several weeks prior to the operation. The patient meets with a hypnotist to practice entering a trance. From 2011 to 2015, 37 of the 48 underwent brain surgery using hypnosis sedation. Six patients were unable to enter a trance at the time of the surgery and switched to AAA sedation.

While the drawbacks to hypnotherapy may seem obvious ‒ waking up out of the trance, pain, sneezing while a surgeon has their hands on your brain ‒ there are many benefits as well. The Journal of the National Cancer Institute estimated that the use of hypnosis could save both time and up to $338 per procedure.

Although some in the medical community remain skeptical – there was no control group in the study to compare results with – Zemmoura’s small patient group largely reported positive results. Follow-up questionnaires showed little to no negative psychological impact, Neuroscience News reported.