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The term “root canal” strikes fear in the hearts of many people. Dental patients who are about to get a root canal may be afraid of the pain involved in this endodontic procedure, while others are anxious about the unknown, not understanding what the procedure entails or what to expect. Dental professionals have perfected the root canal procedure over decades; today, the procedure is relatively pain-free and easy to accomplish. Millions of people have benefitted from root canals – most dentists are highly experienced in performing this treatment option. In this guide, we’ll explore root canals, helping to dispel some of the fears associated with this common dental procedure.

What is a Root Canal?

When a person has a severely damaged or diseased tooth, one way to save it is by using a root canal procedure. Decay that penetrates the protective outer enamel layer of the teeth can spread to the more delicate inner tissues, referred to as the pulp. Traumatic events like sporting injuries or vehicle collisions can also damage teeth, cracking the surfaces and allowing bacteria to affect the pulp. When the inner pulp is exposed, it can lead to extreme and discomfort, and may eventually result in the loss of the affected tooth. In both of these cases and many others, root canals may be prescribed as a means of saving the tooth from loss.

In simple terms, a root canal is the procedure by which damaged or decayed tooth tissues are removed by a dental professional. Specialized tools, including drills, are used to access the inner tissues of the affected tooth. After the damaged tissues are removed, the inside of the tooth is disinfected, then filled with a temporary filling material that seals the opening(s) in the tooth. Finally, a protective crown or permanent filling is applied by the dentist. By performing this procedure, the dental professional can eliminate the pain the patient is experiencing as well as to preserve the tooth’s natural look. 

Is There Pain Involved in the Root Canal Procedure?

In years past, dentists used a variety of methods to complete root canals. In some of those early cases, patients experienced pain, pressure, or other discomfort both during and after the procedure. Today, advances in dental anesthesia have all but eliminated the discomfort; in fact, the overwhelming majority of patients report no pain whatsoever when the procedure is done. Dentists may use strong anesthetic agents to numb the areas around the damaged or decayed tooth, and this numbing sensation lasts the duration of the procedure. These agents are typically injected into the gum tissues surrounding the affected tooth, or they may be swabbed onto the gums prior to injection.

Patients with anxiety about dental procedures may opt for more anesthetic choices, such as nitrous oxide gas, referred to as “laughing gas”. This gas is mixed with oxygen and breathed through a mask over the nose and mouth, providing a sedative effect that alleviates anxiety in the patient. Nitrous oxide does not put the dental patient to sleep; patients can still hear the dentist and respond to any directions the dentist may have. 

Does it Hurt After the Root Canal?

In general, patients may experience mild tenderness or pain in the hours after a root canal is completed. Dentists can prescribe pain medications for severe pain, but most pain can be managed by over-the-counter analgesics like acetaminophen (Tylenol). Within a few days, patients are able to resume normal eating, drinking, and brushing habits. 

How Long Does a Root Canal Take?

Each case varies, but the average root canal takes about 90 minutes to complete. This includes the time it takes for the dentist to numb all affected areas with dental anesthetics. Most root canals can be completed in a single visit to the family dental clinic, but may sometimes require a second follow-up visit to fit a protective crown or permanent filling. 

Is a Root Canal Expensive?

Costs can vary for root canals, depending on the severity of the tooth damage and whether a second dental visit is required. Most dental insurance covers this procedure; ask your dentist about insurance and payment plan options. For patients worried about the expenses associated with root canals, it is important to understand that this safe and painless procedure costs far less than a tooth extraction, tooth implant, or dental bridge/appliance. Best of all, a root canal preserves your natural teeth, keeping your smile as bright and healthy as possible.