The Healers

"You're Getting Sleepy"


Or maybe just feeling a whole lot better, as IC professor Richard Schissel helps patients manage pain through hypnosis.

Pain management: Professor Richard Schissel

by Bridget Meeds '91

In a pleasant downtown office with cream-colored walls and comfortable overstuffed furniture, Richard Schissel is helping people. But here the Ithaca College professor of speech-language pathology and audiology is not training clients to speak more clearly or compensate for hearing loss. Instead, he's using hypnosis to help clients with chronic pain manage their conditions. It's a step along his long journey to investigate the value of integrative medicine.

Schissel, a tall, dynamic man, first encountered hypnosis in 1995 while experimenting with conventional meditation and traditional talk therapy. "It began to occur to me, as I was meditating, that if I could give myself some suggestions while I was in this beautiful meditative trance, maybe I could make this time more productive," he says. "After doing that for a while, I realized that's basically hypnosis."

Intrigued, Schissel began researching the field. In 1998 he traveled to New Hampshire, where he took a 100-hour course in hypnosis technique. Once trained and certified by the National Guild of Hypnotists, he returned to Ithaca and opened a private hypnotherapy practice specializing in treating chronic pain patients. These people, who suffer from excruciating conditions such as fibromyalgia and peripheral neuropathy, often feel that they have reached the end of their options with traditional Western medicine.

"Ultimately these patients hit the limit where they cannot safely increase the dosage of their pain medications," says Schissel. "The physicians are basically saying, 'We have it diagnosed, we don't know what's causing it, we don't know what to do about it --- so good luck.' That's when I come into the picture."

Schissel works with the patient's physician, and often with chiropractors, acupuncturists, and other integrative health care providers as well. Schissel plans his treatment in three stages. First, he uses relaxation techniques to help the patient sleep better, reduce stress, minimize the side effects of medications (such as nausea), and focus on the moments when the patient actually feels good. Second, he uses posthypnotic suggestions to change the patient's perception of the pain --- from an intolerable burning or stabbing feeling to a more manageable numb feeling. Finally, he tries to work with the root cause of the pain, to see if it can be eradicated.

Schissel's technique takes a lot of time, but he feels that's a big bonus of integrative medicine. Insurance companies are squeezing Western doctors, he explains, giving them less time for plain old-fashioned caring. "Most integrative practitioners can afford to and are willing to spend far more time with a patient," he says, "so we have a better understanding of how the pain is affecting their lives. We can intervene at the point at which the Western physician cannot, or does not chose to, or cannot afford to. We're providing another level of treatment for the patient. I think that psychologically, as well as physically, that's very important. And it's one of the reasons that integrative modalities can be effective."

Schissel is also exploring and supporting integrative health practices in other ways. He's on the board of the Ithaca Integrated Community Wellness Center, a not-for-profit community group that provides free education about integrative health practices. And he administers the Ithaca College minor in integrative health studies, which combines courses from the Schools of Health Sciences and Human Performance, Humanities and Sciences, and Music. This 21-credit minor, first offered in spring 2002, already has 12 students. Along with their coursework, the students also have a capstone experience --- which this year included an independent-study semester in Hawaii for one student, an internship in Uganda for another, and an independent-study course in Australia for another.

Although these activities are added on to his already busy days as a professor, Schissel finds them useful tools for his primary work. "Practicing hynotherapy certainly informs my clinical work and my teaching," he explains. "It raises my own level of empathy with clients, and I think I can bring all of that to our students."   end

  Photos by Cheryl D. Sinkow

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A. Ozolins, Ithaca College Office of Publications, 30 July, 2003