When the science of midwifery undermines the art

Self-hypnosis for pain relief in labour

Obstetrician and canoeist through the thick waters of controversy Jim Thornton drew my attention to this recent trial, published by the BJOG in February (Werner et al 2013, read it here), through his blog (read his post here, always though-provoking). Jim calls the trial ‘lovely,’ but I can’t agree. Rather, I think it illustrates how research, if not appropriately designed, can potentially cause more harm than good.

This study was well-conducted in randomised controlled trial (RCT) terms, so we can depend on the results: Take a group of women who are up for it and randomly allocate them to a short course on either self-hypnosis, relaxation, or standard antenatal care. They then give birth supported by a midwife who is not allowed to know how they prepared to self-manage pain in labour. You will find that no one education intervention results in more or less pain, more or less need for epidurals, nor any noticeable difference in satisfaction with their childbirth experience. I’m not surprised.

I was pleased to see the authors shared many of my concerns in retrospect and can only imagine it was over-confidence in a technique they had observed many women use with great satisfaction that led them to proceed with a trial design which featured some predictable flaws. One of my biggest concerns was that staff were blinded about the woman’s allocation. Effect: most of the time the midwives could not guess correctly which group the woman belonged to. This was a piece of midwifery research, but it effectively disabled midwives from practicing their art, sympathetically enhancing the woman’s coping techniques using knowledge gained about that woman through their relationship.

This debate was bugging me until I picked up the latest issue of The Practising Midwife and read midwifery lecturer Charlotte Kenyon’s very sensible piece on ‘Clinical hypnosis for labour and birth: a consideration.’ She discusses the difficulties with conducting research in this area (I refer you to her article for a fuller account; TPM is digitally lacking, so visit your library), but most importantly she points out, “No recent studies could be found which employed individualised hetero-hypnosis” (Kenyon 2013, p12).

Individualised hetero-hypnosis’ is what you get when you give midwives a set of tools (along with women) and enable them to use them to support women on an individualised basis, according to the woman’s needs and values, enhancing the woman’s own coping skills. Delivering individualised care, sympathetically combining experience- and evidence-based knowledge, is the art of midwifery. In contrast – “Where research is undertaken using formulaic scripts, results may be affected by the use of a one size fits all approach to a therapy which by its nature is individualised” (Kenyon 2013, p12). Yep.

Soo Downe is currently conducting an RCT (registered here) on the use of self-hypnosis with a mixed methods design that appropriately includes other strands of contextualising data collection such as interviews, focus groups, logs and questionnaires. Importantly, the midwives supporting women in labour will not be blinded; therefore, the conduct of the trial itself presents an opportunity to expand the practice of midwives providing individualised care. This sounds like a study which will pragmatically improve our understanding of how women use self-hypnosis and how midwives can enhance women’s own efforts, as well as whether or not there is a quantifiable difference in outcomes which would justify increased investment to integrate such services into the NHS. Can’t wait for the results.

So what harm can come from poorly designed research? Well, I wouldn’t have liked a positive outcome for the Werner trial to lead us down a path of advising all women they will have a better time if they use self-hypnosis (without a greater understanding of who it is most likely to help, how and why). But I also don’t like the idea that on the back of this large RCT some individual women’s use of self-hypnosis will inevitably be dismissed by some professionals as ‘not evidence-based,’ rather than respected and appropriately supported. This could undermine a woman’s confidence and feeling of being supported in her chosen coping strategies. For what? Because we know better?

Declaring my personal biases (because it’s my blog): I have never been drawn to using hypnosis (self-administered or otherwise) while giving birth, despite having four home births. If you told me I would never have to listen to a hypnosis CD throughout a night of someone else’s labour again, I wouldn’t complain; they make me feel like I’ve just had a lobotomy. My personal birth mix included Nina Simone, Herbie Hancock, and Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin,’ just to lighten the mood while I swore like a trucker. But I trust women. Having listened to many women describe how hypnosis-related techniques and programmes helped them feel more confident and in control, and having watched them give birth, I am siding with those who insist their experience be properly accounted for before we close the book on the hypnosis for childbirth debates.

Reference

Kenyon C (2013) Clinical hypnosis for labour and birth: a consideration. The Practising Midwife. 16(5):10-13.

Update 2015 – You can read Downe et al 2015 by following the link.

BJOG. 2015 Aug;122(9):1226-34. doi: 10.1111/1471-0528.13433. Epub 2015 May 11. Self-hypnosis for intrapartum pain management in pregnant nulliparous women: a randomised controlled trial of clinical effectiveness. Downe S, Finlayson K, Melvin C, Spiby H, Ali S, Diggle P, Gyte G, Hinder S, Miller V, Slade P, Trepel D, Weeks A, Whorwell P, Williamson M.

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