“I’d rather have a root canal!” We’ve all heard the jokes. When something unpleasant or painful comes up, you might hear it compared to this much-dreaded dental procedure. Why do people think of it as torture? Does a root canal hurt as bad as we’ve been led to believe?
It may surprise you to learn that root canal procedures are no worse than any other dental procedure. In fact, the toothache that results from the initial problem in the tooth is usually much more painful than the procedure itself.
What Does the term “Root Canal” Even Mean?
At the center of each tooth is an area called the pulp chamber. It contains blood vessels and nerves and acts very much like the roots of a plant. The blood vessels carry nutrients into the tooth. The vessels and nerves run through a “canal” in the tooth. They form the “root” that attaches the tooth to the jawbone.
This is what we’re talking about when we talk about the “root canal.” A root canal procedure is what the dentist does to fix it and what people have come to fear. But a root canal procedure is sometimes necessary and is nothing to be afraid of.
Why Do Root Canals Have a Bad Reputation?
The root canal’s bad reputation goes back a long way. A long time ago, any dental procedure could be painful. Local anesthetics weren’t widely used by dentists until the 1950s. If you had a toothache to begin with, and a dentist started drilling without these nerve-numbing drugs, of course a root canal hurts.
Today’s dentists have much better tools to use. Modern-day dental instruments and techniques make the patient much more comfortable during the procedure. The development of new anesthetics and analgesics to help with pain management have made the whole experience easier to endure.
Why Do I Need a Root Canal?
If a tooth becomes infected, it may need root canal treatment to repair it. An infection at the root of a tooth is often the result of not treating a cavity when it is small.
Cavities are caused when bacteria eat away at the hard enamel coating of our teeth. If left untreated, the bacteria that forms the cavity multiplies and the hole grows bigger and deeper. It will eventually go through the next layer called the dentin.
Beneath the dentin is the pulp chamber. This is the “root” of the tooth where the nerves and blood vessels live. If the root is attacked by this decay, an infection or abscess can grow, causing pain and swelling. It is when a tooth gets to this point that a root canal procedure is necessary to save it.
What Happens During a Root Canal Procedure?
Having a root canal is really not much different than having a cavity filled. (Read Cavity Filling: What to Expect When Having Cavities Filled). One difference is that the procedure may take two visits to complete.
- At the first appointment, the dentist will administer a local anesthetic to numb the tooth. Many patients think that the shot is the most painful part of the procedure.
- Once the tooth is numb, the dentist will use a drill to make a small opening on the top of the tooth. They will drill down until they reach the pulp chamber.
- With very small tools, the dentist will clean the pulp out of the center of the tooth. They will take special care to remove all of the infected tissue. They may apply some medicine to the pulp chamber to make sure no new bacteria can grow.
- The empty space is filled with a rubber-like material, and a temporary crown is placed on the tooth to seal it.
- In a few weeks, the patient will return to the dentist for the placement of a permanent crown.
Some dentists may place the temporary crown on the hollowed-out tooth. Filling will take place at the second appointment along with the permanent crown.
After the procedure, antibiotics may be prescribed to avoid further infection. Follow-up appointments will be necessary to make sure the procedure was successful and that the infection hasn’t returned.
That Wasn’t So Bad, Was It?
Some pain and discomfort are normal as the anesthetic wears off. Part of the reason a root canal hurts is that it involves a “deep cleaning” of the tooth’s canal. The area will be tender. Chewing hard foods should be avoided for a short time. The majority of patients say that the pain recedes within a few days. Over-the-counter acetaminophen or ibuprofen are usually enough to manage the pain.
If the tooth still hurts after several days, the dentist should be contacted. Prolonged pain may be a sign that the dentist did not remove all of the decayed tissue and additional treatments might be necessary.
A Root Canal Procedure Helps, Not Hurts
Good oral hygiene and regular dental checkups are essential in helping avoid the need for most dental procedures. If you do develop a cavity, get it fixed right away. Avoiding treatment is the main cause of more severe and painful problems that require more serious treatment. Read this article to find out the consequences of ignoring a cavity.
While no one would get excited about needing a root canal procedure, they shouldn’t be afraid that a root canal hurts. Contrary to their reputation, they are not an agonizing ordeal. The pain of your infected tooth is worse than the pain of the procedure itself.
Remember, a root canal procedure is the solution to a painful problem. And modern dentistry practices make it easier than ever.