Last updated on April 20, 2014 at 8:28 EDT

Researchers Use Hypnosis To Ease Post-Breast Cancer Hot Flashes

October 2, 2008

New research published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology shows hypnosis can help reduce hot flashes among breast cancer survivors.

Hot flashes are a significant problem for many breast cancer survivors, the authors reported.

The new findings are particularly important because estrogen therapy, the current best treatment for hot flashes, is off limits for most women who have had breast cancer.

Dr. Gary Elkins said, furthermore, many women must take estrogen-blocking drugs like tamoxifen for years after breast cancer treatment, but “hot flashes can be so severe that some women make a decision to not continue those medications.”

Elkins of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, said several small studies showed hypnosis benefited women suffering from hot flashes. He and his research team randomly assigned 60 breast cancer survivors to hypnosis once a week for five weeks or no treatment.

The 50 minutes hypnosis sessions involved helping the patient to reach a deeply relaxed state, and then offering suggestions for mental imagery to help her relax and feel cool. This could mean having a woman imagine herself walking down a cool mountain path, for example. Women also received instructions on how to practice hypnosis on their own.

Among the 51 women who completed the study, those who had hypnosis reported a 68% reduction in the severity and frequency of their hot flashes. This translated to 4.39 fewer hot flashes a day, on average, for women in the hypnosis group, while there was little change in the control group.

Dr. Nancy E. Avis of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, calls the reduction in hot flashes seen by Elkins and his team “impressive,” but points to the need to compare hypnosis to some type of placebo, rather than no treatment at all.

Elkins said he and his colleagues are now launching a National Institutes of Health-funded study to address this issue, which will enroll 180 postmenopausal women and will compare hypnosis to another type of mind-body intervention.

Elkins noted that the mechanism behind hot flashes is still poorly understood. “We know that they are related to decreases in estrogen, however that relationship is not direct in the sense that hot flashes lessen over time even though estrogen levels remain low,” he explained.

He added that hot weather, spicy food and stress can also trigger hot flashes, so it’s possible that women undergoing menopause may have a more difficult time regulating their body temperature in response to these triggers.

Elkins explained that hypnosis treatment can reduce stress by helping women to relax, and may also give them a sense of control that allows them to keep their body temperature more stable.

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