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Save Your Tooth:  Why Understanding Root Canals is Crucial for Oral Health

For this piece, we spoke Sonia Chopra, DDS, a board-certified endodontist, TEDx speaker, Forbes contributor, author, endodontic instructor, and founder of Ballantyne Endodontics in Charlotte, North Carolina.

How do you know if you need a root canal?

At the center of your teeth, beneath the protective enamel, is a soft pulp known as “dental pulp.” This pulp extends all the way down to the root of your teeth. This pulp is home to blood vessels, nerves, and connective tissue that can easily be infected when exposed to the outer world. Once a tooth becomes badly damaged (through untreated cavities, cracks, dental trauma, etc.), bacteria can sneak into the compromised tooth and enter the pulp.

If the damaged tooth is not repaired quickly, these bacteria can cause an infection that kills the pulp, causes bone loss, and potentially causes the loss of the entire tooth.

Aside from stopping the pain associated with that process, root canals can prevent you from having a serious infection that can impact your overall health. 

The specific signs that you may need a root canal include a hole, chip, or crack in your tooth, tenderness or swelling of the gum area surrounding the tooth, additional swelling around your face and/or neck, an abscess or lesion formed on the gum area surrounding the tooth, similar to a small pimple or blister, or darkening and discoloration of the tooth.

A sign that might be overlooked is extreme sensitivity or pain in your tooth when exposed to either hot or cold food/drink. If you have only this sensitivity, please still take it seriously. The root canal isn’t painful; it’s a pain beforehand that causes so much discomfort. The root canal actually relieves you from the pain!

What is root canal treatment?

You might know about the root canal as the intervention you need when your tooth hurts. While this is true, I’ll give you a better explanation: sometimes, bacteria can get into the pulp or canals of your teeth, usually through a crack, trauma, or cavity. When this happens, you may experience pain. At this point, the bacteria won’t go away on its own. Root canals are the best and final treatment option for teeth that would otherwise need to be pulled via an extraction.

So what happens when you go to see a professional? If a root canal is needed, the doctor will perform an intervention to take the “bad bacteria” out of the tooth and replace it with a clean filling. Then a final restoration, like a crown, will be placed on top to protect your tooth.

Why are many people scared of a root canal? 

Root canal technology has changed a lot in the past few decades. In the past, root canals could cause discomfort, but these days, it’s a different story. For example, through the GentleWave Procedure, which uses irrigation and sound dynamics to irrigate your tooth’s canal system, your post-procedure pain is generally very minimal.

If a root canal is painful in the modern day, it’s only because your provider isn’t using enough anesthesia. Nothing is painful with good anesthesia, and if you ever got through an operation of some kind, you know that it is the truth. Don’t be afraid to let your provider know that your procedure is painful; they will provide more local anesthesia to improve your comfort.

What are themyths that you about root canals that scare people off? 

Myth 1. “A root canal is painful.” 

Root canals aren’t painful — it’s the infection in your tooth that is causing the pain. If your root canal is painful, the issue is the anesthesia: with good anesthesia, no medical procedure is painful. The sensation should only feel like a little pressure or vibrations during treatment since anesthesia cannot get rid of those sensations.

Myth 2. “A root canal is expensive.”  

Root canals are often associated with a lot of myths, and one of them is the cost. Many people believe that root canals are expensive, and they avoid getting treatment because of it. However, the truth is that the cost of a root canal is not as high as people think — and the alternatives can be more costly.

The cost of a root canal can be in the low to mid thousands. Though sometimes it may seem like a lot of money, it is important to consider the long-term consequences of not getting the treatment. Major dental procedures can cost much more than a root canal, and the health costs of not treating the problem can be astronomical.

Moreover, if you decide to extract the tooth instead of getting a root canal, the cost of the extraction and the implant is much higher than that of a root canal. So, getting a root canal treatment not only saves you money but also helps prevent future dental health problems and procedures. In fact, the cost of not getting a root canal done can result in more expensive and severe dental health consequences.

Therefore, it is essential to understand that the cost of a root canal is worth it in the long run, especially when it comes to maintaining your overall dental health. So, do not let the cost be a barrier to getting the treatment you need.

Myth 3. “It is a very long process, I don’t want to waste my time; it is less time-consuming just to extract the tooth.”  

In the past, root canals may have required many appointments, but modern techniques have made the process much quicker and more efficient. Of course, it depends on the patient and the teeth, but the majority of root canals can be done in one visit of about a 1-2 hour appointment.

How to make sure you are in good hands if you need a root canal done?

A minimum standard for an endodontist is that they use a rubber dam and use a microscope. Although it’s not the standard of care, cone beam technology can also elevate the overall root canal experience.

It would also be useful for you as a patient to ask how many root canals this particular professional performs in a week, which should give you a hint of the main difference between a dentist and an endodontist: a general dentist can perform a root canal, but endodontists perform them on a daily basis and have often invested in the latest technology and proper tools since they are specialists.

The most important thing that you can do to become your own advocate is to educate yourself on what is a root canal when the procedure is needed and what dental provider you should choose. 

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