Does a Root Canal Hurt? Everything You Need to Know About the Procedure Before You Head to the Dentist

Be prepared and have the knowledge you need to make the right decisions for your health.

If you’re having pain, discomfort or abnormalities in your gums – you might need a root canal. Root canals are common a common treatment that is performed when the nerve inside the tooth has been affected in a way that can’t heal with just antibiotic or time. 

For many people, when their dentists bring up the idea of having a root canal, their mind jumps right to the question “does a root canal hurt”? 

Luckily, there’s plenty of information available for you to answer this question and prepare yourself for what comes next. In this article, you can take a deep dive into everything you need to know before you head to your dentist’s office for an evaluation. 

What is a root canal? 

A root canal is a treatment option that may help to save badly damaged or infected teeth or a tooth that has persistent sensitivity. This procedure is done to help preserve the existing tooth and prevent the patient from having the tooth extracted. 

To better understand what a root canal is, let’s take a look at the anatomy of a tooth. 

diagram of all of the parts of a tooth
While you may only see the crown, there are many layers to the tooth that can become damaged or infected. The area the root canal may address to relieve your pain and eliminate the infection. 

Your teeth are made up of many different components, but the two main parts are the crown and the root. The crown is the part of the tooth that you can see when you smile, while the root is below the gum line in the jaw bone. 

Under the crown, there is a pulp chamber that connects to the root canal. The root canal has dental pulp in it, which is a combination of nerves and blood vessels that connect all the way to the tip of the root. 

When the pulp in the tooth becomes infected or inflamed, a root canal might be required. During the root canal procedure, your dental provider will remove the dental pulp from the canal to eliminate any injured or infected areas. 

Having a root canal performed may relieve pain or discomfort you may be feeling and allow you to keep your natural teeth. A root canal cannot heal with time or antibiotic alone, treatment is necessary to resolve the infection. 

female dentist looking at a patient with a call to action on the right side saying “find an office”

What kind of dentist performs the root canal procedure?

There are two main types of dental providers that will perform a root canal – a general dentist or an endodontist. 

In many cases, your general dentist may perform the root canal. Many dentists are experienced in root canal treatment and are comfortable taking on these cases in their offices. 

dentist looking down at patient who is sitting in the operation chair
There are two main types of dental providers who generally perform root canals, a general dentist and an endodontist.

Some dentists prefer to refer patients out to a specialist. If your dentist does refer you out, they will send you to an experienced endodontist.  To make this process simpler for patients, some dentist offices will bring an endodontist into their office to treat patients under one roof.

An endodontist is a dentist that specializes in diagnosing tooth pain and performing root canal treatment, along with other procedures related to the interior of the tooth. Endodontists have additional schooling to become experienced in more complex procedures. 

Regardless of which dental provider you choose to perform your root canal, the first step is always visiting your general dentist. They will help you understand your needs and guide you towards making the right decisions for your health. 

How to know if you need a root canal

You will need to make a trip to your local dentist to know for sure whether or not you need a root canal – but you’ll likely notice a few common symptoms. 

diagram of different symptoms a tooth can feel if there is a problem
If you’re in need of a root canal, there are a number of symptoms you may be experiencing. From pain or sensitivity to pimples and visibility of swollen and discolored gums – it can all indicate there is a problem with the tooth. Source: https://gentlewave.com/resources/root-canal-infection

Many people realize that something isn’t quite right when they have pain or discomfort when doing everyday activities like eating, drinking, and talking. Another symptom that might indicate a root canal is needed is persistent sensitivity to hot and cold temperatures. 

These are a few common symptoms that might indicate that you need a root canal: 

  • Severe pain while chewing or biting
  • Pimple on the gums
  • A chipped or cracked tooth
  • Persistent sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures
  • Swollen or tender gums
  • Decaying or darkening of the tooth

If you notice any of these symptoms, you’ll want to contact your dental provider for an exam. The sooner you address the concern, the better. Waiting too long can result in irreversible damage and may mean you could lose the tooth or lower the chances of a successful treatment.

Another common reason why you may need a root canal is due to some form of trauma. Many people experience trauma to their mouth during contact sports, which is why it is important to wear the appropriate facewear and a protective mouthguard to help avoid an unwanted accident. 

Sometimes, people may experience tooth trauma without even knowing it. It can lay dormant for many years before the tooth finally becomes painful or infected. 

Does a root canal hurt? 

When your dentist recommends a root canal as your treatment option, you might be nervous at first. If you’re feeling this way, you’re not alone. 

Many people fear that the root canal procedure is a painful process, but this is a common misconception. 

When your dentist performs the root canal, they will use local anesthesia to numb the area and help address the pain. With this anesthesia, a root canal procedure is no more painful than any other dental treatment. 

That being said, if you’re experiencing pain due to a damaged or an infected tooth, a root canal can be a reasonably painless way to address the problems. 

After the procedure, you may feel some pain or discomfort. Within a few days, any post root canal symptoms should go away, and you can go back to a pain-free life.  

Why have a root canal? 

A root canal can be an effective treatment option to save your natural teeth when they’ve cracked, decayed, have become overly sensitive, or have an infection. 

If you choose not to have a root canal performed, then the damage could continue to spread and result in your dentist extracting the infected tooth. Untreated infections can also result in an abscess, leading to the disease spreading beyond the initial area. 

By addressing your concerns early and moving forward with your dentist’s recommendation, you can save yourself further pain and avoid losing the tooth. 

The root canal procedure explained

Root canals can be performed within one to two appointments in most cases. Your dentist will prepare the area, treat the affected areas, and fill the canals for further protection during these visits.

diagram of the process for root canal treatment
A few specific steps occur during a root canal, from accessing the inside of the infected tooth to applying the filling and finishing it off with a crown. Source: https://gentlewave.com/resources/root-canal-infection

Step one: preparing the area and administering local anesthetic 

The first step in the root canal procedure is to prepare the area that will be worked on. 

Your dentist will administer local anesthetic to the affected tooth and the surrounding area during this step. This will numb the area they will be working in and help you from feeling any pain from the procedure. 

Your dentist will then place a dental dam to help isolate the tooth that the root canal will be performed on. It will cover the remaining teeth that do not require treatment. 

Step two: cleaning the root canal

Next, your dentist will drill a small hole through the top of your tooth that will allow them to access the pulp chamber and root canal. Once they’ve gained access to the tooth, they will use instruments to clean the areas. 

Once the area is adequately cleaned, the area needs to be disinfected to prevent any further infection. To do this, your dentist will use antiseptic and antibacterial solutions to clean the area.

This will eliminate any lingering bacteria and infection in the root canals. 

Step three: shaping and filling the canals

Once the area is cleaned, the canals need to be shaped, allowing the root canal filling and sealant to be placed. Your dentist will use specialized tools to shape the canals to prepare the area for the filling materials. 

Once the tooth has been shaped, it’s ready to be filled. 

A rubber-like material will be placed into the canals to fill the tooth, and it will be heated and compressed to be pushed into place. The filling should fit snugly against the walls of the tooth. 

Once the filling is placed correctly, your dentist will add adhesive cement to seal the canals fully. This is an essential step in the process because it protects the tooth from further bacteria and infection. 

Step four: filling the access point

Once your dentist has completed filling inside the tooth, they will need to finish the job by filling the access point in your tooth. This is the area they drilled into your tooth to access the root canals. 

Depending on your procedure protocol, your dentist may use a temporary or permanent filling to close the access point. 

This final step is another way the tooth is protected from bacteria and infection, and it may help protect your tooth from needing future treatment.

In some instances, the root canal may need a crown placed. If this is the case, your dentist will place the crown over the treated tooth. This helps add strength and stability to the tooth and further protects the area.  

Can a root canal fail? 

Root canals have a success rate of 95%, so it is unlikely that your root canal will fail, but there are always exceptions. 

The most common reasons for a root canal to fail are inadequately sealed restorations, fractures, or new tooth decay. 

If your root canal fails, it may result in many of the same symptoms you experienced before performing the procedure. You may notice pain when eating, swollen or discolored gums, or a pimple on the gum. 

When a root canal fails, you may need another root canal to address the infection or bacteria that may still be lingering in the tooth. Let your dental provider know as soon as you start experiencing problems with your tooth that was previously worked on.

Finding a reputable dental provider experienced in root canal therapy may provide you with the highest success rates. Make sure to do your research and choose a dentist or endodontist who has experience performing the root canal procedure. 

Some dental offices, like Aspen Dental, have endontists who come into the office to make receiving this specialized care easier for patients. 

How long does a root canal take to heal? 

While the thought of a root canal may seem intimidating, it’s a relatively simple procedure that doesn’t require a lengthy recovery time. 

You may start to feel better immediately after your root canal, and no later than a few days of having the root canal performed. 

You may likely notice some discomfort once the local anesthesia wears off shortly after your root canal, but that should only last a few days. During this time, your dentist may prescribe you over-the-counter pain medication if necessary.

Another common question is whether or not you can go back to work or school after your root canal procedure – and the answer is yes! 

You’ll experience numbness in the area of the procedure for a short period of time after the procedure and some discomfort as it starts to wear off. Still, it shouldn’t stop you from doing your everyday activities. 

Are there post-root canal restrictions? 

There are a few post-root canal restrictions you’ll want to keep in mind. 

Right after the procedure, you’ll want to remember that your mouth will be numb until the local anesthesia has worn off. 

You will want to avoid chewing and drinking anything hot such as coffee, during this time. Since you won’t feel your mouth, there is a high risk of biting down too hard or burning your mouth. 

Once the anesthesia has worn off, this should no longer be a concern, and you can continue to eat and drink as you please. 

In the days following your procedure, you’ll want to avoid things like: 

  • Sticky candy and food 
  • Chewy food like steaks 
  • Hard food like nuts

Over time, you should begin to eat these foods again but take caution shortly after your procedure. 

While a root canal is a great treatment option, after your tooth received dental work, it will never again be as strong as a natural tooth. It is wise to avoid chewing nuts, ice, sticky foods, or using your tooth for any purposes other than eat. 

In some cases, your dentist may place a temporary restoration. During the time period while you wait for the final restoration, you’ll want to adhere to any instructions and timelines set by your dentist or endodontist around what types of foods you can and can’t eat. 

Long-term, you’ll want to make sure to continue to keep up with your dental hygiene routine of brushing, flossing, and regular visits to your local dentist. These steps may help keep your teeth and oral health in top condition. 

How to take care of a tooth after a root canal

Most dentists will have you come back to the office to ensure that your mouth is healing properly and the tooth has responded well to the procedure. But between all of the dentist visits, it’s important for you to care for your teeth as well.

It's all about practicing proper oral hygiene when it comes to taking care of a tooth after a root canal. You’ll also want to be sure to avoid sugary or acidic foods and beverages and avoid smoking for optimial oral hygiene.

Making sure to schedule appointments with your dentist every six months is another vital step in keeping your oral hygiene in tip-top shape. This visit allows your dentist to examine your mouth, perform a deep clean, and identify potential problems early on. 

Early detection of recurring issues is vital to protecting your teeth, so your dentist may take more frequent X-rays after you’ve had a teeth treated with root canals. This is important because without the nerve sensation present, dental problems can sometimes go undetected by the patient. 

What happens when a root canal is delayed?

Ignoring the problem is a poor decision when it comes to tooth pain. If you put off having a root canal treated for too long, you’ll only be doing more damage to your mouth. 

The infection within your pulp will not simply go away, it needs to be treated, or it will continue to get worse and spread. Antibiotics may help to temporarily alleviate discomfort and control the spread of infection, but treatment is necessary to resolve the problem. 

This infection can spread to other areas of your mouth, including your jaw bone, but it won’t stop there. When left untreated over an extended time, it can spread to your brain, blood, and other areas of your body. 

That means that delaying a root canal may result in the loss of the tooth and could cause other major health concerns. 

Early intervention is the best option when you notice anything off in your mouth. Waiting too long because you’re afraid the root canal will hurt is only putting you at risk for further complications. 

How to prevent future root canals

Proper oral hygiene can help you prevent future root canals and keep your mouth in the best shape possible. 

Here are the things you can do to prevent future root canals

  • Brush your teeth twice daily
  • Use toothpaste that contains fluoride
  • Use an electronic or manual toothbrush with soft bristles and remember to replace it regularly 
  • Visit your dentist regularly 
  • Floss to clean between your teeth
  • Avoid sugary and acidic drinks and foods
  • Treat cavities when they are small so they don’t grow and damage the nerve

Taking steps to prevent tooth decay and infection is the best way to avoid needing another root canal in the future. Good oral hygiene can keep your teeth in the best shape possible and help you avoid any unnecessary visits to the dentist. 

Root canals don’t have to be scary

For anyone worried that a root canal may hurt, after reading this article, we hope you now know that they can be a good option to address a significant concern. Choosing to ignore the warning signs and put off treatment may result in more pain and problems than having the procedure done early. 

Contact your local Aspen Dental office today to learn more.

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