Why is it that root canals have one of the worst reputations of all dental procedures? If you’ve ever heard someone talking about their root canal treatment or watched a root canal documentary, you’re probably asking yourself questions like, “Are root canals safe?” Or “Are root canals as painful as people make them out to be?”
Depending on who you ask, you’re going to hear a lot of differing opinions on root canal treatment, the materials dentists use during the process, and whether or not the procedure actually works.
Also referred to as endodontic therapy, root canals aren’t like a typical filling or dental crown. Instead of repairing the top of the tooth you see above the gums, they extend down the length of the root. As such, special equipment or training is required to perform the root canal procedure.
If not done correctly or if there are complications, a root canal can fail and require retreatment. Thankfully, failure rates are extremely low.
The biggest misconception, however, is whether or not they hurt your tooth or cause pain after the root canal treatment. In reality, it’s exactly the opposite. Because root canal-treated teeth no longer have a nerve supply or pain receptors, they can’t feel any pain after you get a root canal. The misconception of root canal pain has more to do with the infected tooth than the root canal procedure itself.
“If my tooth doesn’t hurt, I don’t need to do anything.”
As the nerves inside of your teeth die, they prevent them from transferring pain through the nerve receptors to your brain. If they were working properly, you might experience severe toothaches or be unable to eat. But since the nerve is non-vital, you don’t feel any pain at all.
Sometimes smaller infections like cavities don’t hurt, either. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
When your dentist sees that the nerve of your tooth is infected or dying, the only option to repair it is with a root canal.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation—most of which is founded on poorly-conducted research—about the safety of root canals. In reality, experts and researchers have shown that the success of endodontic treatment goes as high as 98%.
The theory that root canals are dangerous goes back to the early 1900s. But these concepts have been shown to be completely unfounded and unreliable, especially since there were no control groups used and bacteria was purposely inducted into the areas being tested.
Getting root canal therapy today is just as safe as any other restorative procedure, like dental implants or having a cavity filled.
Some people are concerned about the safety of root canals because they believe it traps toxins or other dangerous materials inside of your body.
During a root canal treatment, your dentist or endodontist removes all of the bacteria and dead nerve tissues inside your tooth. So no, they are not trapping toxins inside of your tooth. It’s as clean and sterile as it can be. The only issue you run into is possibly missing accessory canals with additional nerve tissues, which is why some root canals are referred to endodontic specialists.
But what about the material that’s being used to fill your tooth? Most root canals use gutta percha—which is a rubber-like material from the Malaysian percha tree—to fill and seal off your canals. Gutta percha has natural antimicrobial properties and has been used in root canals for over 150 years.
Why do people say that root canals are so painful? Usually, it’s because they wait and have a serious dental infection. Not only are toothaches extremely painful and uncomfortable, but abscessed nerves and blood vessels also make it more challenging to numb your tooth. Local anesthetic doesn’t work as well when there’s serious swelling, making it more challenging to get you comfortable. Adding more medication doesn’t necessarily get you out of pain, which makes your tooth more tender during the actual treatment.
After a root canal, your tooth is no longer alive or able to feel painful stimuli, because there is no nerve inside of it. Any irritation or soreness that you do feel is from something else, such as your injection site or a sore muscle from having your mouth open a long time. There may be sensitivity due to natural tissue inflammation after the procedure but if you feel severe pain after the local anesthetic wears off, contact your dentist.
If you’re worried about whether or not root canals are safe, you always have the choice of pulling your tooth instead. But is a dental extraction equal or better than a root canal treatment?
Absolutely not. In fact, it’s regarded as a “worse” option than endodontic therapy.
Why is that? Because with a root canal you can preserve your natural tooth for the rest of your lifetime. Whereas a dental extraction creates a chain reaction in your mouth. By creating excess space, you then need to do one of the following to replace it:
The best solution is always to save your tooth, whenever possible. And a root canal is your last line of defense.
Do root canals only provide short-term results? No; they’re permanent. A well-maintained tooth with a root canal should last for the rest of your life.
That being said, you may occasionally need to update the crown on top of your root canal-treated tooth. Especially if you’re not great about flossing every day.
There are other types of endodontic procedures that are not permanent. For example, a pulpotomy. Pulpotomies are like “baby root canals” on primary or baby teeth, used to manage abscesses and tooth pain before the tooth is replaced with the adult one a short time later. It doesn’t repair or reinforce the tooth, but it does remove the nerve and source of discomfort.
But once you get a root canal, it’s there for good. The only time a root canal isn’t permanent is if you need to go back for re-treatment, which is extremely uncommon.
Do root canals induce serious health conditions like cancer or heart disease? According to the Root Cause documentary, they do. But as with any health claim, you have to look at the data and research. When you do, you’ll see that endodontic therapy does not—and is not proven whatsoever—to contribute to other medical concerns. The Root Cause documentary uses faulty data and already discredited studies to claim that endodontic treatment is dangerous.
Over the past century, endodontic therapy has been performed worldwide without any scientific studies linking it to major medical concerns. Including heart attacks or cancer.
Recently, there was a film that came out (the Root Cause documentary) that made unsettling claims about root canal treatment. One was that the #1 cause of a heart attack was because people had endodontically treated teeth.
The data that this film uses as its foundation go back to discredited research. So much so, that the Root Cause documentary was completely removed by Netflix just a short while later.
To be honest, extreme documentaries grab attention, but that’s about it. Especially when people don’t fully understand the scientific research behind such claims. But the misinformation of root canals being dangerous is over a century old, and millions of root canals have been completed since then. There is no data to support claims like root canals causing cancers (on the same side of the body, nonetheless) or heart disease. Especially when the data is skewed and test subjects are altered.
If you’re seriously worried about whether or not you should get a root canal, I highly recommend getting a second opinion. Talking to another dentist or endodontist (root canal specialist) can help you feel more confident about your oral health decisions.
Are root canals safe? 100%. Does a root canal hurt? No. But as with any dental procedure, there will be risks with sedation or anesthesia, so your dentist will still have you sign paperwork beforehand. However, you can feel confident knowing that getting a root canal is, in fact, the safest and healthiest thing you can do for your smile if you have an abscessed tooth.
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