Can hypnosis really be nature's epidural? We find out.

By Holly Pevzner
June 01, 2014
Alloy Photography/Veer

Childbirth is really (really, really) painful, right? After all, 41 percent of new moms rated the discomfort of labor as the worst pain imaginable, according to research in the Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology. But some who teach and practice hypnobirthing techniques -- which rely on self-hypnosis and relaxation to help during labor and childbirth -- claim that the experience can actually be close to pain-free. Could this be true?

"Absolutely. You just don't hear too much about it," says Giuditta Tornetta, a birth and postpartum doula and author of Painless Childbirth: An Empowering Journey Through Pregnancy and Birth. "The truth is, about 1 percent of all women in the United States experience a painless childbirth. But as a society we focus on drama, so many women who've had a painless experience keep it to themselves so as not to boast or upset women who say they had a horrible experience," Tornetta says.

Although pain-free would be the ultimate goal, most moms-to-be would likely settle for simply less painful. And according to Tornetta, hypnosis during birth, while certainly not a guarantee of a pain-free birth experience, is a good way to get there. A comprehensive review of 13 controlled studies featured in Clinical Psychology Review notes that hypnosis has been shown to be more effective than standard medical care, supportive counseling and traditional childbirth education classes when it comes to quelling labor and childbirth pain. A major bonus: Hypnosis and its pain-relieving powers may lead to shorter labor.

Before we can understand how hypnosis can relieve pain, it's important to know why we feel the pain in the first place. With each contraction, your uterus squeezes your baby closer to the exit. Muscles are flexing and squeezing. You're pushing. It's natural to feel uncomfortable. In addition, "the intensity of labor can create tremendous stress," says Sheryl Ross, M.D, an ob-gyn at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. "Your body may naturally react with what is called a fight-or-flight response. This puts your body into survival mode: Your heart beats faster, you breathe faster, you become anxious, your blood pressure increases, your muscles tense up. All of these physical and emotional reactions to stress can negatively affect labor."

Hypnosis can be an antidote to all that stress. "Using hypnosis can minimize the way you react to stressors, so your body won't experience these negative physical reactions, which ultimately helps you deal with the pain of labor," Dr. Ross says. In scientific terms, hypnosis helps to suppress neural activity between your sensory cortex (the part of the brain that registers what you physically feel) and the amygdala limbic system (the part of the brain that interprets what you feel). That suppression leads to less pain.

"It's important to remember that every woman and every labor is different," says Craig M. Palmer, M.D., professor of anesthesiology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. "Even some unprepared women experience uncomplicated, pain-free deliveries. I believe hypnosis for birthing is one technique [that] can improve the delivery experience for some women, but even I, an experienced obstetric anesthesiologist, can't guarantee pain-free delivery for every patient."

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