You’ve heard the words you never wanted to pass your dentist’s lips with you in the chair: “You need a root canal.” What?? Your heart quickens and you feel panicked. Everyone knows that root canals are simply awful and they take several visits!
Truth be told, having root canal therapy, which is sometimes called endodontic therapy and more often shortened to simply “root canal,” is usually not much different from having a filling done, from the patient’s perspective. Chances are extremely good that you will feel no pain, and technology has made it possible to perform many (though not all) root canals in one appointment that lasts 60 to 90 minutes. If you are worried about an upcoming root canal, read on to learn more about this common procedure.
What Is Root Canal Therapy?
Root canal therapy is done when there is a problem with the nerve of the tooth. It could be that it’s highly inflamed due to decay or bacteria; in this case, you might be suffering with hypersensitivity and tooth pain. Another reason to perform a root canal is that there is an infection at the end of one or more of the roots. This could be asymptomatic and only detected on an xray, or you might have a feeling in intense pressure or even facial swelling.
During the root canal, your dentist will drill a hole in the tooth. He or she will use small files, both attached to a handpiece (drill) by hand, to remove the infected or inflamed nerve tissue. Once it’s all out and the canal space is clean and dry, a synthetic material called gutta percha will be used to fill the space. In most cases, you’ll have a post and a crown placed; sometimes, however, a different type of permanent restoration will be used.
Will It Hurt?
The main question that most patients have is about pain. In the vast majority of cases, regular novocaine will provide the right amount of anesthesia so you won’t feel anything. If you feel any discomfort as the nerve of the tooth is removed, your dentist can always give you more local anesthetic into the nerve itself, which immediately eliminates any lingering twinges of discomfort.
In rare cases, it might be difficult for you to get numb. This is normally due to an advanced infection. In this case, you might require nitrous oxide (laughing gas) or other pain relief. Sometimes antibiotics are given first so the infection is more under control.
After the procedure, once the novocaine has worn off, you will probably have some soreness for a few days. Most of the time, over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen will take care of the discomfort. If you need stronger pain medication, your dentist will give you a prescription.
Why Do Root Canals Have Such a Bad Reputation?
In decades past, dental anesthesia was not as effective as it is now. Also, some patients have severe infections that make it difficult for the anesthesia to work well. Finally, many patients come to the office for an emergency root canal because they are in severe pain with a toothache. Although the procedure itself is pain-free, once the anesthesia wears off, those patients continue to experience some pain while healing, though it is markedly less than before the root canal was performed.
Today, most patients who require root canal therapy are surprised at how pain-free the experience is. Remember that at any time during any dental procedure, you can let your dentist know if you are experiencing pain, and he or she will use a different method to relieve it whenever possible.
If you find out that you need a root canal, don’t panic! Get it taken care of before you are suffering with a severe toothache, if at all possible. If you are already in a lot of pain, be sure to let your dental staff know so they can do whatever they can to relieve your discomfort and nervousness.