In Some Surgeries, Hypnosis Is the New General Anesthesia

Women undergoing lumpectomies for breast cancer are going to their ‘happy place’

Dana G Smith
Elemental
Published in
6 min readDec 2, 2019

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Illustrations: Haleigh Mun

BBeverly Levinson pictured herself sitting by the large outdoor fireplace at her mountain house in North Carolina, the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountains unrolling before her. She breathed in deeply, filling her nose with earthy notes of the surrounding forest. A warm breeze touched her skin, and she could hear the leaves rustling in the old oak trees. Voices murmured overhead, but in her semiconscious state, all Levinson could make out was the calm tenor of hypnotist Rosalinda Engle telling her to relax her jaw.

In reality, Levinson was lying on the operating table in a surgical suite at MD Anderson Cancer Center while her doctor resected a tumor from her right breast — a far cry from the tranquil scene she imagined. An anesthesiologist gave her the painkillers fentanyl and novocaine to numb the site of the incision, but Levinson was awake for the entire two-hour surgery, guided into a trance by Engle’s soothing voice.

“It was such a pleasant experience,” Levinson says. “I loved it. If I had to have surgery again, I would do it again.”

Hypnosedation is part of a growing trend in medicine to avoid giving people general anesthesia whenever possible. The initiative is partly born out of the opioid crisis and fears of painkiller addiction and partly due to concerns about anesthesia’s harmful side effects. According to one study, 30% to 40% of people experience cognitive dysfunction — like memory issues — from general anesthesia immediately after surgery, and 5% to 12% still have impairments three months later. Anesthesia may also dampen the immune system, and there is some evidence that people who undergo surgery using general anesthesia have a higher probability of their cancer returning than people who receive only a local anesthetic. (The immune system normally kills micrometastases — small cancer cells that break off from the primary tumor—but if someone is immunosuppressed, these cells survive and thrive.)

“We’re at a point in our society now where, certainly when we’re talking about pain medications, less is better,” says Lorenzo Cohen, director of the Integrative Medicine Program at MD…

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Dana G Smith
Elemental

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental