The idea of having a root canal is enough to strike fear in the heart of any dental patient. Over the decades, the mere phrase “root canal” has come to symbolize any activity or endeavor (dental or otherwise) that is considered painful, terrible, or avoidable at any cost. There are historical reasons for this, of course, but in modern dentistry, most root canals are no more difficult or eventful than getting a simple filling. Still, the connotation that root canals invoke ranges from mild apprehension to downright fear and distress. This is due to many ongoing myths and half-truths that have lived on in the non-dental world, leaving root canals still near the top of many patients’ most dreaded procedures. In order to gain a better understanding of this treatment, let’s take a look at four myths about root canal treatment pain and the truth behind each.
#1: Root Canal Treatment is Painful
Without question, this is the most common misconception. Put simply, in today’s world root canal treatment pain is often negligible or non-existent. There are a few reasons why the widespread belief continues to be that root canals are painful. First, teeth undergoing root canals very often are infected, or abscessed. When teeth become infected, inflammation occurs in and around the tooth, and the pH of the tissue changes. pH is a measure of acidity, and bacterial infections cause an increase in tissue pH in and around the tooth and its nerve. In normal situations, the body’s tissues have a higher pH than local anesthetics, which is essential for their proper function. When the pH drops, anesthetics are not as effective. This often leads to incomplete anesthesia, thus pain and discomfort.
Nowadays, though, this is not as big a problem as it once was. First, most teeth with advanced bacterial infections will usually be treated with antibiotics before the procedure, raising the pH of the tissue and increasing the effectiveness of the anesthesia. In addition, there are many advanced anesthetic techniques and technologies in existence today that all but ensure complete anesthesia and therefore a comfortable and painless appointment.
#2: Root Canal Treatment Reduces the Lifespan of a Tooth
Aside from the myths about root canal treatment pain, another common belief is that root canals lead to premature breaking or loss of teeth. This is simply not true. A properly performed root canal, followed by appropriate restoration of the tooth, in combination with good oral hygiene should keep the tooth healthy and functional for a lifetime. There are a lot of qualifiers in that sentence, so let’s look at each.
First, the procedure must be done properly. This is why having root canals performed by endodontists (root canal specialists) is so beneficial. Second, a root canal treated tooth requires specific restoration to protect it and keep it strong, which is why a crown is almost always recommended. Failure to follow through with a crown can greatly decrease the strength and lifespan of a root canal treated tooth. Finally, good oral hygiene is a must, including regular dental checkups. As long as these guidelines are followed, there is no reason why a root canal treated tooth shouldn’t last a lifetime.
#3: Root Canals Can Make You Sick
If you are one of the many people who “Googles” dental treatments in order to learn about them and their potential risks, no doubt you will run across this myth. In society, this myth is, fortunately, beginning to wane and is more of an old wives’ tale at this point.
The basis for this myth is over 100 years old. In the early 1900s many dental and medical practitioners adhered to the newly-devised “focal infection theory.” In short, this theory postulated that systemic diseases could be traced to a “focal” infection, such as the kind found in abscessed teeth. Furthermore, many in the medical field believed that teeth could harbor bacteria even after receiving dental treatment, root canals included. It was assumed, then, that the bacteria housed in teeth could be responsible for other diseases or conditions in the body.
Today we know that this is simply not true. In the mid-1900s endodontics took big steps forward with the effective and widespread use of disinfectants, antibiotics, and x-rays. In the 21st century, root canals have nearly a 100% success rate, and the idea that infected (or previously infected) teeth can make you sick has been definitively discredited.
#4: Extraction is a Better Option Than Experiencing Root Canal Treatment Pain
The common belief that extracting a tooth is a better choice than a root canal is fraught with error and poor judgment. This myth is a combination of most every other root canal myth: that they are painful, they reduce the tooth’s lifespan, they can make you sick, and so on. Some people believe extraction is better since (supposedly) a root canal takes multiple appointments (very rarely) and therefore pulling a tooth is a faster way out of pain.
No matter the reasoning, the belief is false. Once a tooth is extracted, there are several options: do nothing to replace the tooth, or replace it with an implant, bridge, or denture. It goes without saying that no dental prostheses can match the quality and vitality of your natural tooth, even if it has had a root canal. Leaving an empty space where the tooth once was can cause a host of long-term problems. Implants are good treatments but are expensive and time-consuming. And bridges and dentures are more of a hassle than a root canal and not nearly as conservative. The bottom line is that a root canal is by far the best option for treating an abscessed tooth.
If your endodontist has prescribed root canal treatment for you, do not believe the many myths that exist about this treatment. Endodontic therapy is truly miraculous in its ability to heal and preserve your tooth.
Always remember that only your dentist or endodontist can diagnose an abscessed tooth. Furthermore, you don’t need to be in pain for a root canal to be necessary. This is why regular checkups and x-rays are essential; the sooner an infection is identified, the better prognosis the treatment will have.