Getting a Root Canal: Frequently Asked Questions

It is time to get real about root canals. Find out everything you ever wanted to know about this dental procedure. And face your next treatment with a smile.

Frequently asked root canal questions

Image from Bev Sykes on Flickr.

If you have recently been informed, by your dentist, that you need a root canal, you are probably feeling a little nervous. However, there really is no need to worry, because it is a routine treatment that is carried out on millions of patients every single year. As quite a common procedure, there are very few risks involved and, these days, root canals can be completed in a matter of hours.

In most cases, more than one appointment is needed, because the root canal treatment is carried out first and then a repair job is added later. This usually involves a filling or a crown, but more on that later. You have probably heard some scary things about this procedure, but the truth is that most of the myths and anxieties about it are very old indeed. They date back to a time when root canals were frightening and painful, because there were no anesthetics!

Today, dental specialists have access to a whole range of anesthetics, tools, techniques, and instruments designed to make your treatment as pain free as possible. It is extremely rare for root canals to be painful these days, so the anticipation and the fear of the unknown is where most of the anxiety now lies. Ultimately, all that will happen when you get your treatment is that you sit back, count the minutes, and probably get a little bored.

There may be some unusual sensations and some feelings that you are not very fond of, but there should be no pain. And, at the end of it all, you will have solved your dental aches and woes and made sure that your smile is set to last for a long time to come. This is the true nature of the root canal; it is a common procedure that saves teeth.

Dealing with an Intense Fear of the Dentist

Of course, this does not change the fact that some people are deathly afraid of the dentist. The majority understand that it is an irrational fear, but they still struggle to conquer it. Now, this is all well and good until they develop a cavity or an infection in the dental root. Without treatment, both of these conditions leads to severe pain and the acceleration of tooth loss and degeneration.

So, whether or not you are afraid of the dentist, visiting for check-ups is essential. The longer you leave your teeth without a routine exam, the higher the chance of complications. Fortunately, there are some steps that you can take if you are struggling with anxieties about the dentist or getting a root canal. The first is to simply talk to your dental specialist.

They should be more than willing to invite you into the surgery for a non-invasive consultation. For people with intense fears, it is very important that this initial meeting involve no contact. It is designed to help you familiarise yourself with the sights and smells of the dental environment and to make it easier to sit in the chair, talk to the dentist, and think about having a treatment.

During this session, do not be afraid to voice your concerns. The dentist is there to talk you through the examination or root canal process and to dispel any myths and misconceptions that might be worrying you. For example, many people still believe that root canals are always painful. In reality, the procedure is only painful if it is being carried out incorrectly and this is extremely rare.

This handy guide to some of the most frequently asked questions about root canals will help you to get informed about this ‘not so scary after all’ procedure.

  1. Why Do People Even Need Root Canal Treatments?

This is a very good question and a great place to start learning about the importance of the root canal. There are actually a number of different things that can cause a tooth to need this procedure, but some of the most common are cracks, fractures, serious cavities, and root infections. Essentially, all of these conditions lead to root infections and this is what a root canal is designed to repair.

  1. What is a Root Infection and How Do I Know If I Have One?

When the bottom section (below the gum) of a tooth develops a cavity, either through decay or a fracture, this gap quickly fills up with nasty bacteria. This is very bad for the health of teeth and gums and puts a great strain on surrounding tissues. If left untreated, it can cause tooth loss, bone degeneration, and gum disease.

The symptoms of a root infection can sometimes be very easy to spot and a little trickier at other times. In fact, you really do not want the symptoms to be too obvious, because if they are, you likely have an abscess. This is a very painful condition and it only occurs if a dental problem has been allowed to deteriorate.

In some cases, root infections may present mild pain, but to make sure that they are spotted early, keep up with regular dentist appointments. That way, a root canal can be scheduled before any irreversible damage is done to the pulp inside the affected tooth. This will give you a very high chance of being able to keep it. On the other hand, if the infection has been allowed to fester for too long, the tooth may need to be extracted.

  1. What Happens During a Root Canal Procedure?

The typical root canal involves around three or four separate processes. This means that it usually takes a couple of hours to finish. It can be a little fussy and complex for the dentist, but there should be no pain or stress for the patient. All that is required of you is the ability to sit still for a long while. If you ask nicely, your dentist might even let you plug in an iPod or take a little nap while the procedure is in progress.

The part of the root canal involves the creation of a little hole in the top of the infected tooth. Then, the dentist uses a drill and a special file to extend this hole down into its very bottom. This is so that he or she can reach the bacteria filled fluid at the root. A suction device (much like a miniature hoover) is inserted into the hole and used to suck out all of the nasty stuff.

Once this is done, the dentist fills the empty tooth structure with a material called gutta percha. This is designed to give the tooth structure and act as a barrier for invading bacteria. It is customary for a filling or a crown to be added, but this procedure is usually carried out at a later date. Generally, both the dentist and the patient prefer to take a break between these treatments, but the decision is ultimately at the discretion of the specialist.

  1. Why Does My Dentist Keep Taking about Posts and Crowns?

Once a root canal is complete, the dentist will want to start thinking about a reconstruction option, even if a crown cannot be fitted on the same day. In most cases, a post is installed in the newly cleaned tooth, in order to add support for the crown. This is not always necessary; if there is a lot of strong dental material left even after the procedure, you may not need one.

To fit a post, the dentist takes out some of the gutta percha inserted into the cleaned tooth structure. A small amount (2-3 millimeters) must be left to seal up the root sections and make sure that bacteria cannot make it ways inside again. The post is placed inside this newly made space, so that a crown can be securely fixed on top. Once all of this has been completed, you will be entirely done with the root canal procedure and ready to start smiling again.

  1. Are Root Canal Procedures Painful?   

It is very rare for a root canal to cause pain, because the dentist uses an anesthetic to completely numb the tooth. The procedure is designed to alleviate and prevent toothache from taking hold, so it actually provides a lot of relief. There is, of course, a certain amount of soreness and swelling once the anesthetic has worn off, but this is a natural part of having somebody poke around in your mouth for so long.  

This after-treatment pain should be mild and disappear completely within 1-3 weeks. It can be effectively managed with over the counter painkillers, so all that you have to do is head down to the pharmacy. In some cases, a dentist will prescribe a mild painkiller for before the procedure, so that the effects are ready to take hold just as the anesthetic wears off. If you are not sure about whether it is okay to take a particular medication, it is best to consult your dentist for advice.

  1. Do Root Canals Cost a Lot of Money?

Ultimately, the price of a root canal procedure depends entirely on the rates offered at your local surgery. There are some dentists who charge more than expected and others who charge less; there is no fixed price for dental treatments. For comparisons sake, a root canal is usually more expensive than a filling (it takes longer and is more complex), but it is cheaper than an extraction and a dental bridge.

If left untreated, a root infection will eventually require both an extraction and a bridge, so you are advised to head to your dentist right away if you are having dental problems. There are plenty of great dental membership plans that you can join if you need some extra help with meeting the cost of a procedure. It is certainly worth doing a little research if you are worried about being able to afford the necessary treatment.

  1. Aren’t Root Canals Prone to Failure?

This is another common misconception, but it has not been true for a very long time; since root canals were first developed. At present, the rate of success (as regards procedures which last for a lifetime) stands at 85-90%. So, it is clear to see that your chances of having a lifelong root canal are very high.

There is really no such thing as a ‘failed’ root canal, but a small number do develop repeat infections in later life. As of yet, there is no way to guarantee that this will not happen, because a material that is 100% bacteria resistant has not been developed. The good news is that dental scientists are hard at work on discovering one.

If a repeat infection does occur, the dentist will take another look at the tooth and decide if it is strong enough to be cleaned and refilled. In most cases, this is the right course of action. In fact, the tooth is only likely to be extracted if a crack or facture has developed in the interim years. Ordinarily, the dentist will perform another root canal, replace the crown, and send you on your way again.

  1. Is There a Chance That I Will Lose My Tooth?

With all dental treatments, the end result depends entirely on how extensive the damage is judged to be. However, it is surprisingly rare for a dentist to just pull a tooth, even if it is decayed. For modern dentists, this is a last resort, because we now know that it greatly accelerates the degeneration of surrounding teeth. It may also lead the otherwise healthy teeth to become misaligned, as they try to fill in the gap.

So, the likelihood of losing a tooth is very small, unless the damage is too severe for it to be saved. If the tooth is cracked or fractured, there may be no way to repair it. Also, if an abscess or cavity has been allowed to progress and deteriorate, the pulp tissue inside the tooth may be too damaged to allow the structure to remain. Ultimately, however, your dentist will do all that they can to avoid an extraction.

  1. Will a Root Canal Lead to a Dead Tooth?

The idea that root canals lead to ‘dead’ teeth is a controversial one. There is some truth in it, but also a great deal of inaccuracy. It stems from the fact that the procedure removes all of the nerve and pulp tissue from inside an infected tooth. Yet, as long as the treatment is only carried out on adult teeth, it does not take anything vital away from dental health or strength.

The root canal is not performed on developing teeth (babies, infants, or teenagers), because they need this nerve tissue to drive growth. In adults, however, the tissue has no function except as a pain mechanism. It is ‘triggered’ to alert you that there is a problem with the tooth. But if you are having a root canal, that ship has already sailed, so to speak. The nerve tissue has done its job, but the tooth will not suffer if it is removed.

  1. Is a Root Canal Dangerous for My Physical Health?

There are some groups of people who have chosen to believe that root canals are very bad for physical health overall. As of yet, there has been no evidence found to support this theory. In other words, it has been thoroughly debunked. It is based on an inaccurate theory to begin with; the idea that any kind of bacteria living in the mouth can cause disease in the rest of the body. This is simply not true and there are lots of friendly and essential bacteria to prove it.

In this way, the mouth is just like the rest of the body. It contains some nice bacteria and some not so nice. While it is, technically, possible for nasty bacteria in the mouth to prove fatal if left untreated for long enough, this is also true of bacteria in the arm, the leg, the elbow, or any other part of the body.

However, simple dental infections are very common and very treatable. They may occur in the roots of teeth once, twice, five times, or more and never cause sickness anywhere else. As long as they are treated properly, with a root canal if necessary, there is nothing to fear from these minor infections. However, if you do feel anxious about the procedure, talk to your dentist. They will put your mind at ease and answer any questions that you might have.

Tips and Tricks to Help You Prepare for a Root Canal

The single best way to make sure that your root canal procedure goes smoothly is to follow instructions. Your dentist knows exactly what you need, so listen carefully and do the right things. If you are prescribed a specific type of painkiller, take it. If you are told not to take a certain painkiller, stay away from it. Honestly, they really do have your best interests at heart.

One important thing to remember is that you need to tell your dentist about any extenuating circumstances. So, speak up about any medications that you are allergic to or any underlying medical conditions that you might have. The chances are that they will not have an impact on treatment, but for the sake of safety, it is always best to be completely honest and transparent.

You should try to sleep well the evening before the root canal procedure. If you approach it rested and in a good mood, you are likely to feel less anxious. The same rules apply for eating. You do not have to turn up for a procedure with an empty stomach. It is perfectly fine to eat up until around an hour before the treatment and this is only for the sake of courtesy really.

It can be tough to maintain your bravery at the dentist, even if you know that the procedure is routine and comes without risk. After all, a phobia is a phobia and sometimes there is little to do with the fear but deal with it as best you can. If you need to squeeze a stress toy throughout the procedure, do it. If listening to music is soothing, ask your dentist if this is okay.

Generally speaking, dental professionals are more than happy to let you do whatever helps you to relax and feel comfortable. As long as it does not get in the way of the procedure, there should be no problems. Once the root canal is finished, the dentist will have a chat with you about aftercare. You must listen very carefully to everything that is said and follow all of the instructions that they give you. If you experience complications or the pain becomes intense, consult your specialist immediately.  

Aftercare Advice for Root Canal Patients

The aftercare requirements for root canal patients are very simple and much the same as the requirements for most other dental procedures. You should avoid picking at or touching the tooth at all costs. This will introduce bacteria into the newly cleaned root. It is okay to take an over the counter painkiller, but do not exceed the recommended dosage, no matter how intense the pain becomes.

If the pain progresses past anything but a mild ache or soreness, there may be a problem. Consult your dentist as soon as possible and describe what is happening. In some rare cases, there are root areas within the tooth that are concealed and subsequently missed by the dentist. This can cause a continuation of the original aches and pains. If this happens, another root canal cleaning may have to be scheduled.

This is fairly uncommon, so do not worry about it unless you experience anything out of the ordinary. For the first few days after the root canal, you can minimise soreness by sticking to soft foods and avoiding extreme changes in temperature (so no ice cream, sorry).



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