5X5 Episode 16

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5X5 Episode 16
Surgery under hypnosis
20th April 2008

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5X5 15 5X5 17
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Surgery under hypnosis[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.


S: This is the SGU 5x5. Tonight's topic: a hypnotist undergoes very painful surgery without any anesthetic. British hypnotist Alex Lenkei underwent hand surgery which involved actually chipping away part of the bone, in his, in the bones in his wrist and his thumb, and he did so by – according to the news reports – without any anesthesia simply by hypnotizing himself just before the procedure.

J: This is the first I ever heard that you could hypnotize yourself. Is that possible?

B: Well somebody has to hold the watch for you but yeah.

(Laughter)

E: Or spin the disk with the swirly thing.

R: Well when you consider that hypnotism would be a certain form of meditation then it would be possible-

B: Right.

R: -I suppose to "hypnotize yourself" – and I'm using the little air quotes there. But whether or not you could do it to the point where you could relax yourself to the point where you wouldn't mind major surgery is another point all together and I for one am calling shenanigans.

E: Well yeah I don't know how this claim can be validated. How do we know that this person did not have any medication at all? I don't think there's any way really to know.

S: Well this is the report from the surgeon, who is David Llewellyn-Clark. And there are both written reports and video interviews of him on the internet. He says that he underwent no anesthesia and that he described the surgery you know they filleted open his wrist and thumb-

B: It's a 4 inch cut!

S: -and he actually had to use a chisel and saw you know to work on the bone. That would ordinarily be an incredibly painful procedure. He also went out of his way to point out that they were monitoring his respiratory rate and his blood pressure and his pulse rate and they correctly said that if somebody if he were just you know grinning and bearing the pain through incredible self discipline his vital signs would go up and that's generally true that's correct. So if that report is correct he was actually not feeling significant pain during the procedure but the big question mark in this whole affair is whether or not he received any local anesthesia. There actually is published protocols for so called "hypnoanesthesia" and it involves giving local anesthesia and not a single report that I could find anywhere specifically addressed the question one way or the other. Neither did the doctor mention it on the interview itself.

R: And this case reminds me of back in the 70's the same sort of thing happened with acupuncture where there were reports coming out of China saying that these major surgeries were being performed with just acupuncture but then it was later discovered that it was actually a cocktail of drugs-

S: (agrees)

R: -plus a local anesthetic that was quite easily fooling reporters into believing that it was just acupuncture. So that's what sprung to mind as soon as I heard this, set the little skeptical detector off.

E: Yeah I think a doctor from Yale discovered it, went and took a trip to China to find out what was going on and found out the truth.

J: So if we look at the possible outcomes of this or the possibilities of what's happening here, either it's true, the guy was able to do it, he's completely lying, the patient was on medication before he went or...

S: Or if he was getting local anesthesia and that they just neglected to mention that little detail in all of the news reporting. Which I think is by far and away the most likely scenario.

R: I vote for that.

J: Right.

B: But also I think that it's interesting to point out: in my research I was a little surprised to find previous studies that seem to clearly show that hypnosis can have an impact in pain perception such as November/December 2004 Issue of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine talked about a study where volunteers were hypnotized and studied during FMRI and they found significant reduction in pain perception using FRMI-

S: Yes

B: -and another and other similar studies. I was surprised that pain perception could be reduced by hypnosis in a clinical setting and showed you know clearly at least these preliminary studies.

S: I'm not surprised by that at all. Pain is a completely subjective experience, and a huge component of pain is attention: are you attending to the pain? And another component of it is just your emotional state: are you anxious or relaxed? So yes if you meditate, it's probably not accurate to call it hypnosis in that it confuses it with stage hypnosis which is a completely different thing but they do use the term "hypnoanesthesia" which really is a form of just very intense meditation where you draw your attention away from whatever the source of the pain is and you relax yourself-

B: Right.

S: - and that absolutely can reduce your perception and emotional response to the pain. However, what it will not do is make you completely numb to the pain; make you have zero pain and that's what they were reporting in this case and that's what I just don't buy unless this guy is a very unusual situation, you know that has not been reported previously.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


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