Root Canals Get No Lovin’

Root Canal awareness week banner

Root Canal Awareness Week 2014. Logo courtesy AAE.

As we get ready to kick off the 8th annual Root Canal Awareness Week on Sunday March 30, it is remarkable to see that root canals are still perceived to be horribly painful and worse than torture. I outlined this myth in one of my Dental MythBuster posts called Dental MythBuster #3 – Root Canals Hurt!

Needless to say, despite that post getting over 12,000 views, the myth lives on in the popular media. Let’s see where:

  • The New York Times, February 7, 2014. “…taxes you pay on your investments has as much appeal as a root canal.”
  • The Los Angeles Times, June 14, 2009. “For the average American, modern air travel has all the appeal of a root canal.”
  • Northwest Indiana News, February 20, 2014. “… the topic of life insurance has about as much appeal as a root canal.”
  • The Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2011. “I had a root canal, and that was fun” (this was done in a sarcastic manner).
  • Washington’s Blog, August 26, 2013. “the American people would much rather get a root canal or a colonoscopy than bomb Syria.”

At least in the last example, the procedure is considered more desirable than a regional war and on on the same level as a colonoscopy!

And lastly, we have the President of the United States publicly maligning the procedure in his State of the Union Speech seen here:

So clearly, the procedure is believed to be unpleasant. But shouldn’t we all just stop worrying and appreciate root canals for what they do?

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Root Canals

Dr. Strangelove who would not have worried about a root canal

Dr. Strangelove would have loved what a root canal could do (image courtesy wikipedia.org)

While there are different view on this borrowed line from Dr. Strangelove, there is no ambiguity when applied to the root canal procedure. This procedure helps to save teeth and prevents premature tooth loss.

Once you are adequately numb, you feel no pain during the procedure.

So let’s get this straight. You have a broken down tooth, one that you are at risk of losing. A procedure is available, one that does not hurt, that will allow you to save the tooth and not go around toothless!

And despite all the inherent benefits, the procedure is maligned by nearly everyone, including President Obama.

For this Root Canal Awareness week, let’s try to appreciate them. Or, to take inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s film, let’s stop worrying and love root canals!

 

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.