Can A Hypnotherapy App Work For IBS?

Brought to you by Creative Healing for Youth in Pain's Parenting Blog

Rebecca Cherry, MD, MPH
April 2, 2023 / 5 mins read

I often recommend clinical hypnosis for management of a child's irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or other form of chronic pain. Invariably, the parents’ first question is, "How can I find a provider?" Their second question is, "How can I get an appointment?"

Most practitioners of gut-directed clinical hypnosis are psychologists who are already spread thin with an increase in patients over the last few years. This shortage of providers makes a downloadable hypnotherapy app particularly attractive. Other benefits of doing hypnotherapy on an app include low cost, no travel time, and built-in symptom tracking so that patients can assess their progress.

But does it work?

The short answer is yes – IF they actually use it.

The Nerva App

A group at Melbourne’s Monash University – the same institution that created the low-FODMAP diet – has created an app called Nerva. Nerva incorporates evidence-based clinical hypnosis practices for IBS management, along with a range of educational material for patients. The app is intended for 10-15 minutes of daily use for six weeks. The app is free to use for the first week, then requires a subscription, which as of this writing is $78.99 for three months.

The Monash University team, led by Dr. Simone Peters, has studied the symptom responses of people who used the app. They presented some of their data at the annual meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology in 2022. They have now published another analysis, available to the public in the latest (April 2023) issue of Neurogastroenterology and Motility. The takeaway was similar with both sets of data, however, more detail is available in the 2023 publication.

Dr. Peters and her colleagues tracked the symptoms of over 2,800 patients (all age 20 and older) who started using the app. Fifty percent of them went on to purchase a subscription.

However, of those roughly 1,400 patients, only 18% finished the program, and 13% provided enough data to study the outcomes. Those 190 patients had excellent results, however, with an average 57% decrease in abdominal pain. It's also possible that many people who did not complete the program also had good results – and if they were already feeling better, that may explain why they did not participate all the way to the end! However, that information is not available.

So, for people who can be consistent about using the app every day for six weeks, Nerva could be a good option for gut-directed hypnotherapy. I downloaded the app to check it out myself, and my impression is that older teens could benefit from it, as well.

However, for those of us who are less disciplined, it's still unclear whether Nerva is helpful and how it might compare to the effects of face-to-face treatment with an experienced provider. I will be eager to hear more from Dr. Peters, as well as from other research groups, as they continue to gather information.