When you have a cavity, a filling is often the treatment recommended by your dentist. Not all cavities are created equal, however. For severe decay, your dentist may need to perform a root canal procedure to save the tooth. Root canal treatment may also be necessary for a tooth that is severely infected (abscessed), chipped, or fractured.
While the words “root canal” have a scary connotation, the treatment is similar to getting a tooth filling. This guide breaks down what you can expect if you have an upcoming root canal procedure.
What is a root canal?
Although the term is commonly used as the name of the procedure, a root canal is actually the area beneath the tooth enamel and dentin that leads to the root. It contains pulp, which is made up of tissues, blood vessels, and nerves. The pulp can become inflamed or infected by bacteria when it’s exposed due to a deep cavity or an injury. Left untreated, it can create an abscess inside the tooth or jawbone and eventually cause tooth loss. A root canal procedure, performed by either a dentist or endodontist, can save the tooth1.
What does the root canal procedure involve?
The dentist or endodontist will start by administering local anesthetic to numb the area around the affected tooth. They’ll then place a rubber dam around it to protect it from saliva and bacteria that can re-contaminate the tooth2. Once the anesthetic kicks in, they’ll drill an opening in the top of the tooth to access the infected pulp or root. After removing the pulp, decayed or dead nerve, and other debris, they’ll sanitize the tooth to ensure no bacteria remain when the tooth is sealed. To seal the root canal, the provider will use a rubbery material called gutta-percha. For a serious infection, the dentist or endodontist may wait for a week to seal the opening to give it time to heal. Finally, they’ll insert a temporary filling until a permanent restoration, such as an amalgam or composite filling or crown, can be installed. The permanent filling or crown placement will require a follow-up appointment with your dentist3.
Does a root canal hurt?
Many people dread root canals because they’re notorious for being painful. In reality, though, the advances made in dentistry over the last several decades mean you’ll experience minimal discomfort. The local anesthetic should prevent you from feeling anything during the procedure. Of course, if you do feel pain, make sure to let your dentist or endodontist know.
In the first few days after the procedure, you may experience some swelling in the gums and sensitivity and soreness around the tooth. Your provider may recommend over-the-counter medication or write a prescription to help you with pain management. Any discomfort should subside within a few days; if it doesn’t, contact your dentist or endodontist4.
How can you take care of your tooth after a root canal?
Following a root canal, the aftercare protocol is also similar to that of a filling. Your dentist or endodontist will give specific instructions to follow. Generally, though, providers recommend waiting to eat until the anesthetic wears off to avoid accidentally biting or burning your lips, tongue, or cheeks. Do not chew with the affected tooth until your dentist places the permanent crown or filling. Temporary fillings can break when put under too much pressure from chewing, potentially allowing for reinfection. Opt for soft foods and avoid anything hot that could irritate the tooth. Continue brushing and flossing as normal to keep your teeth healthy and help prevent future tooth decay5.