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It’s not magic, but hypnosis has the ability to radically transform your dental practice.
What if there were a way to increase your patients’ satisfaction, separate yourself from the dozens of other dentists in your area and create a great atmosphere for patients and staff alike? And what if that that way didn’t involve any extra time or effort on your part?
Sounds too good to be true, right? But if Judy Thomas, DDS, is correct, then the answer could really rest on one simple word: hypnosis.
Dr. Thomas operated a highly successful practice for over 30 years before recently retiring. She attributes the success of that practice not to marketing techniques (she says that the only marketing her practice did was word-of-mouth), but says it was because she taught her partner and staff about therapeutic communication, also known as hypnotic communication.
Now, Dr. Thomas urges dentists and other health professionals to incorporate those same techniques into their practices. Why? She says that the number one thing dental professionals tell her after putting hypnotic therapy techniques into their practices is “I had no idea this would help this much.”
What is hypnosis?
This question hasn’t been fully answered yet, with various explanations for what’s happening in the brain during hypnosis. But the most basic and most common definition is a state of highly focused attention or concentration, where one is more relaxed and open to suggestions.
Dr. Thomas describes it simply as affecting how the mind responds to situations. “Everything comes from the brain,” she says, “It’s that whole mind-body [connection]. If you can help someone control what their brain is putting out, then you can help them do a lot.”
She stresses that all hypnosis is self-hypnosis - no one can force someone to do something they don’t want to do. Clinical hypnosis is wildly different than stage hypnosis; it’s about getting a patient to use his or her mind in a way that’s helpful, rather than harmful or for a few laughs.
“Just about everyone has this capacity,” she says. “People walk in and out of essentially trance states all day, and it’s a natural ability. It’s [hypnosis] just helping them to really recognize it and really hone it in when they need it. That’s what hypnosis is.”
In dental school, she says, “we didn’t really learn that much about the brain and how pain really works in the brain. When you realize that there are certain parts of the brain that can be affected by just the words that you choose and you can change it, it really makes a huge difference.”
What does the research say?
Many professionals dismiss the idea of hypnosis out of hand, conjuring up images from movies. This same stigma has often applied to researchers, meaning that hypnosis has not been as widely studied or accepted as other methods of therapy - but that’s quickly changing.
The first thing to know about hypnosis is that it isn’t magic or something that’s only useful on stage as entertainment. It only works for some (what’s known as “hypnotic suggestibility” varies widely from person to person as all human attributes or capabilities do), and it can’t force someone to do something they find objectionable.
For those who are willing to be hypnotized - for instance, patients in a dental office who want to rid themselves of anxiety - hypnosis can be a great help. One study on patients with dental phobia used fMRI scans to show that hypnotism actually alters the brain, reducing activation in parts of the brain associated with the fear response.
A recent meta-analysis of much of the hypnosis literature available found that hypnosis is effective for a wide range of issues, some of them found in the dental office. The analysis examined 12 studies related to the use of hypnosis on anxiety and found that all acknowledged that hypnosis was effective. On the topic of pain, the largest topic studied with 37 studies examined, the results were similar, indicating that for both chronic and acute pain conditions patients reported that hypnosis “significantly reduces their perception of pain.”
How do dentists use hypnosis?
It’s all well and good to describe hypnosis in theory, but what does it actually look like in real life? Does it fit into the dentist’s (and patient’s) hectic schedule?
When asked what she wished every dentist could know about hypnosis in dentistry, Dr. Thomas simply responded, “It doesn’t take any extra time.” Again, clinical hypnosis is not like the movies, where a bald-headed man in a tweed jacket swings a pocket watch back and forth for several minutes. Instead, it’s simply about choosing the right language.
Dr. Thomas makes a distinction between being hypnotic as opposed to doing hypnosis. By being hypnotic, she means that “the majority of people walk into the dental office - even those who don’t admit to it - have a slight bit of anxiety. When they come in, the idea is to be able to recognize that they’re not in their normal state, their brain is thinking and acting differently.”
Patients in this modified state respond more with the emotional parts of their brain, so it’s up to the clinician to recognize this and choose the right words to respond to that state - right from the moment they walk into the office. Dr. Thomas taught her entire staff hypnotic language, barring certain words and negative language, which helps to put patients at ease.
She says it’s difficult to give an example of a typical patient, because all patients react differently. “Hypnosis is a way of getting the most out of those precious few minutes with a patient by being able to join them in their understanding of the world,” she says. So for instance, a visual learner might benefit from hearing about the esthetic advantages of a crown, or a kinesthetic learner might appreciate talking about the smoothness of it. “It’s not necessarily doing hypnosis as being hypnotic. Hypnotic communication understands the mind/body.”
“Hypnosis,” she adds, “is understanding the patient on every level and utilizing those few minutes with them in the most efficient way possible.” She says that she has colleagues tell her that patients just sit there with a glazed look on their face, not even listening. “Yes, they are!” she says. “That is an altered state! Recognize it, understand it and be able to communicate with that part of their mind effectively. They are hearing you, they are not understanding you. Hypnotic communication is about the patient understanding you because you have the ability to meet them where they are.”
She gives these two examples of using the right language to accomplish that. Instead of saying “Here is a prescription for pain,” try “Here is a prescription some people use to help with discomfort but I’m sure you’ll find that any sensations you feel will be those of healing and needn’t bother you.” Instead of the usual “You’ll feel a slight pinch,” try “You may feel some coolness or tingling as this anesthetic takes effect.”
There is also the option for more formal hypnosis. Dr. Thomas performed a lot of what she calls “habit control,” which often required more focused sessions. One patient she had would bite his nails, and had for over 50 years. As a result of this, he lost #9 and was losing #8. She couldn’t figure out what the problem was, until he admitted his problem. For patients like that, she would see them during a more quiet time and take 30 minutes to an hour with them, for as many sessions as necessary to help them stop those habits.
Those more formal training sessions, however, were much rarer than the general hypnotic language used on every patient. “People think of it as something more formal, and it isn’t,” she says. “It really is easy, and amazing.”
Most patients - aside from those undergoing more formal hypnosis - were not even aware of the use of hypnotic language. Dr. Thomas describes one patient with a “high dental phobia.” This patient who would go to her periodontist for cleaning, simply because the periodontist was her neighbor and she knew him. If the periodontist saw something wrong, he would send the patient to Dr. Thomas. She would talk the patient while she worked, and “she didn’t know why she felt comfortable, but she did. And you know, she just raved about me.”
That all changed when she sold the practice, and the new owner’s website mentioned that she did hypnosis. The patient read that, and came in and said, “don’t talk to me. I don’t want you doing that thing with me. That voodoo thing.”
The majority of patients, she says, are very receptive to the concept of hypnosis once it’s explained. She explains that what it’s really doing is not taking away control, but is actually giving them more control over their own mind and body - the exact opposite of what happens with what they see in stage hypnosis. “The things they can do by just telling their mind to do it, it’s very powerful,” she says.
At the end of the day, hypnosis in the dental practice is about empowering the patient. “If you actually empower them,” Dr. Thomas says, “and help them get over it, not only do they the one emergency thing, but then they’re looking at their teeth thinking ‘I haven’t been to the dentist in 30 years, and now I don’t like the way my teeth look’ and you’re looking at a full-mouth reconstruction. And all you did was help somebody feel better about themselves.”
The dental practice
It follows that if patients are largely supportive of the practice and its results, your practice will also thrive. Dr. Thomas tells dentists, “I guarantee it makes a huge difference on your bottom line when people feel understood and you’re saying the right words.”
She gives one example of a new oral surgeon who had taken a level one fundamentals course and was trying to open up his own practice. The problem was, his practice was in an already-saturated market where people told him that he couldn’t succeed. He needed something to set him apart from all of the other oral surgeons in the area - that something was hypnotic language. He helps them lessen their post-op pain and reduces anesthetic use. In just a couple of months of the word getting out, he was booked solid.
Overall, says Dr. Thomas, dentists need to know that learning therapeutic and hypnotic language is “just going to make such a big difference in their practice and their lives.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the use of clinical hypnosis, there are a variety of resources for beginners. The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, of which Dr. Thomas is a member, offers a series of classes and support for any licensed healthcare professionals with at least a master’s degree.