The use of hypnosis as a medical therapy is being undermined by cowboy practitioners with little training who have caused serious harm to patients, specialists say today.

Hypnotherapy is a proven treatment for irritable bowel syndrome, approved by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice), and research has shown that it provides effective pain relief to women in labour.

But the extension of the technique to other areas of medicine is being hampered by its misuse by inadequately qualified practitioners.

Specialists from the Royal Society of Medicine's Section of Hypnosis and Psychosomatic Medicine meeting in London tonight are to discuss ways of combating the threat and increasing the medical use of hypnosis which they say could save the NHS millions of pounds. Peter Naish, senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University and president-elect of the hypnosis section of the RSM, said many lay hypnotherapists were using techniques which induced damaging "false memories" in the belief that current traumas stemmed from episodes of abuse in the past which were so terrible the memory of them had been suppressed.

"Thousands of people offer hypnotherapy – you see the advertisements everywhere – even though they may have had scant training in dealing with psychological problems. A high proportion of lay therapists have this belief [that problems are caused by abuse in the past the memory of which has been long suppressed]. They use techniques [to elicit them] that can cause serious harm."

Dr Naish described the case of "Anna", a patient whose hypnotherapist had steered her over a series of sessions to name a relative who had sexually abused her.

He said: "The hypnotherapist said, 'You must tell me the one most terrible thing you've been involved in and are too embarrassed to talk about.' Her reply was, 'Well, I haven't murdered anyone!' His response: 'Oh no, much worse than that'. These so-called therapists induce a completely false memory in a vulnerable patient which is of no therapeutic use whatsoever and can cause very serious harm. I've treated patients whose lives – and those of their families – have been devastated by the induction of a false memory of sexual abuse. They've paid a lot of money and all they get is additional emotional trauma, while still suffering from the condition for which they first sought help."

Jacky Owens, president of the RSM's hypnosis section, said: "If doctors were able to refer patients to properly trained hypnotherapists, it would save a cash-strapped NHS a great deal of money.

"Making hypnosis a standard part of the NHS toolbox would also lead to the public becoming better informed about the procedure and mean that vulnerable patients would be less likely to turn to hypno-cowboys. The Government needs to look at this again."

Sex abuse 'memories' were false

In a court case in Northern Ireland last year, a middle-aged man accused the neighbour who had lived next door to him when he was growing up of sexually abusing him up to the age of 14.

He persisted with the allegations even though he and his family had moved away from the area before he was 14. He claimed he had slipped and cut himself while climbing over a fence to get away from his abuser but declined to let a GP examine him for signs of scarring.

During the case it emerged that the hypnotherapist who had elicited the "memory" of the abuse had done a distance learning course lasting less than a month to obtain his qualification. He had previously been working as a plasterer and had no other qualifications. The judge threw out the case for lack of evidence.

The Royal Society of Medicine's hypnosis section is setting up a training programme for medical students with an interest in hypnotherapy. Peter Naish, president-elect, said someone seeking treatment should choose a hypnotist qualified in medicine or psychology and trained under the auspices of the British Society of Clinical and Academic Hypnosis.

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