Hypnosis may help reduce distress of cancer treatment in children

University of Exeter | June 2018 | Hypnosis may help reduce distress of cancer treatment in children

A team at the University of Exeter have worked alongside Devon Integrated Children’s Service to explore ways of  reducing anxiety in children having treatment for cancer without using drugs. According to the authors of the study almost fifty per cent of children with cancer experience clinically significant emotional distress. This can cause additional anguish for the child and for their families and have a long-lasting impact on mental health. As well as looking at the evidence available on hypnosis, the team also reviewed evidence on listening to music, virtual reality and cognitive behavioural therapy. They found much of the research about whether or not these strategies reduced children’s distress to be  contradictory.

Now, the team report  that hypnosis can reduce the distress associated with injections and other needle procedures, such as extracting bone marrow and giving chemotherapy. Earlier research had found that procedures like these are often more anxiety-inducing for children and young people than the cancer itself.

Tamsin Ford, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “Hypnosis is inexpensive to deliver, and our research found that it was the technique that was most studied, and showed promise in reducing children’s anxiety about the many medical procedures they have to endure. We now need high quality trials to be sure whether hypnosis should be adopted in clinics.”(Source: University of Exeter)

An article based on the research’s findings has been published in the journal Psychooncology



Children and young people (CYP) with cancer undergo painful and distressing procedures. We aimed to systematically review the effectiveness of nonpharmacological interventions to reduce procedural anxiety in CYP.


Extensive literature searches sought randomised controlled trials that quantified the effect of any nonpharmacological intervention for procedural anxiety in CYP with cancer aged 0 to 25. Study selection involved independent title and abstract screening and full text screening by two reviewers. Anxiety, distress, fear, and pain outcomes were extracted from included studies. Where similar intervention, comparator, and outcomes presented, meta-analysis was performed, producing pooled effect sizes (Cohen’s d) and 95% confidence intervals. All other data were narratively described. Quality and risk of bias appraisal was performed, based on the Cochrane risk of bias tool.


Screening of 11 727 records yielded 56 relevant full texts. There were 15 included studies, eight trialling hypnosis, and seven nonhypnosis interventions. There were large, statistically significant reductions in anxiety and pain for hypnosis, particularly compared with treatment as usual . Evidence from nonhypnosis interventions was equivocal, with some promising individual studies. There was high risk of bias across included studies limiting confidence in some positive effects.


Evidence suggests promise for hypnosis interventions to reduce procedural anxiety in CYP undergoing cancer treatment. These results largely emerge from one research group, therefore wider research is required. Promising evidence for individual nonhypnosis interventions must be evaluated through rigorously conducted randomised controlled trials.

Full reference:

Nunns, M., Mayhew, D., Ford, T, Rogers, M., Curle, C., Logan, S., Moore, D.|2018| Effectiveness of nonpharmacological interventions to reduce procedural anxiety in children and adolescents undergoing treatment for cancer: A systematic review and meta-analysis| Psychooncology2018 Apr 30|  doi: 10.1002/pon.4749. [Epub ahead of print]


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