Dental MythBuster #3 – Root Canals Hurt!

One very common dental myth that I encounter frequently in private practice in Orange, CT is the notion that root canals hurt.  If you even mention the word “root canal” to someone they will often shudder with fear.  This is one dental myth that does not seem to die, and as a dentist, it really strikes a nerve with me (pun intended).  To see the degree to which this root canal myth is propagated, watch this video:

President Obama’s reference to a root canal is at the 38 second mark.  This dental myth transcends politics.  It doesn’t matter if you are a Republican, Democrat, Independent, Whig, Libertartian, or other party affiliation.  If the President of the United States maligns root canals, you are inclined to believe that root canals are undesirable and are to be avoided at all costs!

Why Teeth Need Root Canals

Root Canal Picture

Root Canal Picture. Courtesy of the American Association of Endodontists.

In my personal experience as a dentist in Orange, CT, over 90% of the time a patient needs a root canal it is due to dental decay (a.k.a. cavities).  In these cases, the bacteria from the decay enter the nerve of the tooth, resulting in pain for the patient.  This should be very intuitive: you have live nerve tissue that is normally sequestered from the outside environment which is now suddenly exposed to nasty bacteria.  Of course it is going to hurt! The other teeth needing root canals are primarily due to other factors such as trauma, cracking, and resorption.

Why Patients Associate Pain with Root Canals

Woman with a toothache needs a root canal

A woman in pain needing a root canal. She will associate this pain with the actual root canal procedure.

This scenario plays out fairly frequently.  A patient calls our office with extreme tooth pain.  The pain is often described as “unbearable” or “the worst pain I’ve ever had” or sometimes even “worse than childbirth.”  An x-ray is taken and I perform a limited exam. I observe dental decay into the nerve of their tooth.  I discuss the findings with the patient and recommend a root canal. The patient consents.

I place topical anesthetic over the injection site and assure the patient that the pain will soon be gone. I then administer the local anesthetic with the patient feeling little to no sensation of the needle.  Within just a few minutes, they are profoundly numb, and their pain is gone!  I then perform the root canal procedure, removing the bacteria in the tooth, and then filling the roots of the tooth.  The procedure now done, the patient goes home, the numbing wears off, and the pain is still gone.  And it is gone for good and they still have their tooth!

Years later, the patient will then recount his/her experience, and say:

Yeah, I had a root canal at the dentist. It was the worst pain I have ever experienced!

This happens all too often. The patient confuses the pain that caused him to need the root canal with the pain (or lack therof) of the procedure.  And every person who listens to this story then thinks that root canals hurt.  And thus, the myth lives on!

So remember:

  • Root canals do not cause pain, they relieve it.
  • Root canals allow you to keep a very compromised tooth.
  • There are no substitutes for your own natural teeth.

If you’re still scared after all this, you can always be sedated for the procedure. But we hope we’ve busted this myth and eliminated this fear.