So, you think you may need a root canal. Whether your tooth hurts and you went down the treacherous black hole of Google or your dentist told you that you need one, you still don’t quite understand what that means. But you’re definitely nervous.
What Is A Root Canal?
A root canal is a dental procedure, similar to a cavity filling, where the dentist cleans out your tooth and fills it with a material. In the center of every tooth is a canal or tunnel where the nerves and blood vessels of the tooth are (figure 1). When bacteria find their way into this canal it is recommended to clean out the canal and to fill it (ie a root canal), in order to alleviate pain and/or remove infection associated with the tooth. A root canal can be done by most general dentists and by root canal specialists known as endodontists.
Is A Root Canal Painful?
One of the most common questions is whether a root canal is painful. And the answer is that it shouldn’t be. Similar to a cavity filling, the dentist will numb the tooth before working on it. During the procedure, you should feel no pain at all. Following the procedure, it is common to feel soreness around the tooth for 2-3 days, but that can often be alleviated with over-the-counter medication like Advil or Tylenol.
The Root Canal Procedure
The procedure begins with the dentist numbing your tooth so that you do not feel anything while the tooth is being worked on. Any caries (“cavity”) that are in the tooth will be removed first using a drill. Once the center of the tooth is reached, the root canal(s) will be fully cleaned out using shapers and various disinfectants. As soon as the tooth root canal is completely disinfected it can be filled with a soft, rubbery filling material. The procedure usually takes between 30-90 minutes, depending on which tooth is being treated, although some teeth require a second appointment to fully disinfect.
Following A Root Canal Procedure
After the procedure, it is common to feel soreness around the tooth for 2-3 days, but that can often be alleviated with over-the-counter medication like Advil or Tylenol. If there was any swelling or pus around the tooth before the procedure, it will usually start to heal over the next few days. Following the root canal procedure, the tooth becomes more brittle, as the blood supply in the tooth is now gone (a necessary evil). The tooth usually requires a permanent filling and a dental crown to protect it from breaking down in the future.
Can I Put Off Having A Root Canal?
It is highly inadvisable to put off having a root canal. Root canals are usually done because a tooth is in pain or is infected. Delaying treatment usually leads to more pain or swelling, and if the tooth is infected it may spread to nearby teeth. Occasionally a tooth requires a root canal, even though it is not in pain. In these cases, even though you are not in pain, there is likely an infection around the tooth that should be treated before symptoms arise or the infection spreads.
How To Tell If I Need A Root Canal?
Ultimately you won’t know for sure that you need a root canal until your dentist tells you, but certain signs usually indicate that one will be needed. The most common sign that you will need a root canal is finding a pimple on your gums. While a pimple doesn't always mean that you need a root canal, it is one of the tell-tale signs. Another separate but common sign that you may need a root canal is if a painful tooth hurts even more when you tap on it.