Hypnotism for pain relief used to be a tough sell, but Roberta Fernandez is finding an increasingly receptive audience as doctors and patients seek alternatives to opioid painkillers.

The hypnotist's Eden Prairie office opened at first to walk-in clients seeking relief from anxiety or stress, or wanting to sleep better or quit smoking. But lately, she said, doctors have been referring a steady stream of patients who are struggling with pain caused by chronic diseases or joint problems.

"This is a new phenomenon and I think it is because of all the publicity and the changing rules and attitudes about opioids," Fernandez said.

Clinical studies have yielded uneven results regarding hypnotism, but several have found it effective at reducing pain, stress and menopausal symptoms, and at helping people quit smoking. Few if any side effects have emerged.

"The worst that can happen is it doesn't work," Fernandez said.

Fernandez described one elderly homebound client who was in such constant pain that she cried during her entire first visit. After her recent third session, she said, the woman was dressing up and going out to lunch with friends again.

Fernandez said hypnotism is misunderstood — tainted by memories of novelty events at graduation parties and ghost stories with villains swinging gold watches to control people.

"It's not like the doctor even has to say, 'OK, I'm going to put you in a trance now,' " she said. "All hypnosis is is a state of heightened awareness and focus — when you are in a state of being open to suggestion."

Fernandez admits to being selective, providing hypnotism for medical conditions only to patients referred by clinicians.

People don't need to believe in hypnotism for it to work, she said, but they do need to be mentally ready for change. "If they have a pending lawsuit for a disability claim, let's say, they may not want to be in pain but the benefits of what they get from that pain are stronger than being out of pain."

Fernandez gives workshops to other caregivers and is teaching a 100-hour course next month at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Bloomington. She wants Twin Cities hospitals to hire hypnotists to provide complementary care to conventional treatment.

She also wants to teach doctors about the impact of words and the power of the subconscious; she says gallows humor about surgeries or treatments can affect patients in ways practitioners don't realize.

"The subconscious is literal," she said. "It doesn't know sarcasm. So when a doctor says, 'This shot is going to hurt like hell for two minutes,' it [really is] going to hurt like hell for two minutes."

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744