Lean back and relax


imgres-1 copyby Susan Jenks


Florida Today


When she first got a dental bridge almost 46 years ago, Ruth Massanova needed anesthesia for her throat and tongue.

“I have trouble with gagging,” the Satellite Beach resident said, describing the involuntary reflex she experiences every time a dentist takes an X-ray or impression of her teeth. Her reaction is so severe, in fact, the 70-year-old Massanova recently turned to hypnosis when the bridge, which deteriorated with age and began to fall out, needed to be replaced.

“This time, I was able to go through the whole procedure without gagging,” she said, crediting hypnosis for helping her relax enough to endure it. “It helped me go into a state of calm.”

The American Dental Association lists dental hypnosis as one of a handful of nonpharmacologic methods for treating patients’ anxieties and controlling pain. The guidelines, updated in 2007, also include acupuncture and psychological or behavioral strategies for reducing stress, among others.

But the national dental group takes no official position on hypnosis, still widely viewed as an alternative or complementary therapy, rather than a mainstream medical approach. And although it seems to work for some patients, such as Massanova, research studies have not clearly defined which ones derive the greatest benefit.

“I’m convinced for some patients it does work well,” said Dr. Joel Weaver, professor emeritus in the college of dentistry at Ohio State University and a spokesman for the dental association. “The problem is because it doesn’t work 100 percent of the time, many dentists are a bit apprehensive about using it (hypnosis). So most patients probably would have difficulty finding a dentist who does it.”

Locally, however, several dentists recently have shown an interest in making hypnosis available to their patients, especially to those consumed by anxiety during a dental visit. At least 12 hypnotherapists in Brevard County carry certification from the state of Florida to teach hypnosis for a wide array of problems, from dental phobias to gambling addiction, weight loss and smoking cessation.

“I realize how hard it is for some patients just to come into my office,” said Dr. Chris Edwards, a general dentist who runs the Smile Design Center in Viera, explaining why he intends to offer hypnosis in his practice. “Literally, there are millions of people who live in fear of the dentist, and sooner or later, because they avoid going to the dentist, end up with a crisis.”

And although hypnosis may not be as practical or quick as anesthesia, he conceded, “it’s possible, it’s noninvasive, and it works.”

It also has a long history. The first reports of hypnosis in dental work date to the Egyptians more than 3,000 years ago, when it is thought they used hypnosis, in the absence of anesthesia, to do gold fillings. And while the word hypnos comes from the Greek word for sleep, practitioners generally define it as a natural state of focused relaxation, or a temporary narrowing of conscious awareness, through which individuals can be guided to change behavior.

A relaxed state

In November, Edwards, his staff and Dr. Ron Richardson, a Melbourne cosmetic and restorative dentist, participated in a one-day training seminar on hypnosis with Viera-based Susan Sawyer. A clinical hypnotist, Sawyer has a bachelor of science degree in sociology, along with basic and advanced coursework in hypnosis.

“They use hypnosis medically far more in Europe than here,” Sawyer said, even using it in people undergoing surgery.

But many misperceptions about the approach still exist.

“You pretty much have to overcome the foolishness people see on television,” Sawyer said, from the swaying pendulum in front of the eyes, to the idea of people suddenly getting up on stage clucking like a chicken against their will.

“You have to be willing to be hypnotized,” she stressed. “And you can’t be made to do anything you don’t want to do.”

When working with someone with dental phobia, for example, Sawyer said, she takes the individual to a dental office in his or her mind, then programs a relaxed state after the person hits the dental chair. She also asks that they think of a favorite place, like a beach, where “they can stay mentally while dental work is being done.”
How many sessions an individual requires varies. On average, Sawyer said, it may take three or four sessions to overcome a particular fear or phobia, which can cost as much as $90 an hour; insurance may not cover it. “But everybody’s different,” she said.

Increased interest

Dr. Peter Stone, a pioneer in dental hypnosis who teaches at the University of South California School of
Dentistry, said he first became interested in using hypnosis in his dental practice after a woman sought his help for a toothache about 40 years ago.

He said he had prepared a local anesthetic, but she said, “just hypnotize me.”

When he protested he didn’t know how to do it, she told him, “just put your hand on my shoulder and tell me to relax deeply,” followed by several other verbal suggestions. It worked.

Today, Stone, an associate professor in the division of health promotion, disease prevention and epidemiology,
offers a continuing education program in dental hypnosis, the only university-sponsored course listed by the American Dental Association. The course, going into its eighth year, draws dentists from across the United States and Canada, he said, although interest tends to wax and wane.

“With the new injectable anesthetics out there, it’s been going down,” he said. “But over time, it tends to go back up again,” evident in an increased enrollment for the coming year.
Edwards, too, sees interest picking up.

“As with all complementary therapies,” he said, “there’s a slow upward tick, as patients begin to learn more about it.”

For his part, Richardson indicated he’s long been intrigued by the idea of hypnosis; although he’s not yet committed to offering it to his patients, “I’m certainly willing to investigate it further,” he said.

As for Massanova, one of Sawyer’s clients, she doesn’t hesitate to give hypnosis her personal and enthusiastic endorsement.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be just about the dentist,” she said. “I take a few deep breaths and relax now whenever I feel stressed.”

Contact Jenks at 242-3657 or

    • Using hypnosis
    • Some applications of dental hypnosis:
    • Fears, phobias
    • Bruxism (teeth grinding)
    • Pain relief (less or no anesthesia, if allergic)
    • Improved healing
    • Gagging
    • Adjusting to dentures
    • Pediatric cooperation, anxiety –Susan Sawyer,clinical hypnotist
    • More online
    • The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis at
    • The American Dental Association at

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Abstract (Document Summary)

At least 12 hypnotherapists in Brevard County carry certification from the state of Florida to teach hypnosis for a wide array of problems, from dental phobias to gambling addiction, weight loss and smoking cessation. A clinical hypnotist, Sawyer has a bachelor of science degree in sociology, along with basic and advanced coursework in hypnosis.


Dr. Edwards graduated from the United States Merchant Marine Academy and Temple University School of Dentistry. He completed a general practice residency at the Queens Medical Center in Honolulu. To reach Dr. Edwards you may call 321-751-7775 or visit