Once your dentist tells you that you need a root canal, there are probably several questions running through your mind. What exactly is a root canal? What is involved in the procedure? Why do I need one? Will the procedure be painful? What is the typical root canal recovery time? This article is intended to answer all those questions so you can feel a little more confident before, during, and after your root canal procedure.
What Exactly Is a Root Canal?
A root canal is a procedure intended to remove bacteria and infection from the innermost portion of a tooth, which includes the pulp and the nerve canals. Once an infection is present inside the tooth, cleaning that infection out and sealing off the tooth is often the only way to save the tooth and is usually considered to be a good alternative to having the tooth extracted. Root canals are often included in the list of services provided by a general dentist, but the procedure is also typically performed by endodontists – dental providers who specialize in root canals.
What Is Involved in the Procedure?
Although the exact steps involved in a root canal procedure may vary somewhat from one patient to the next, what follows is a list of the typical sequence of events that most patients experience with a root canal.
- Anesthetic and sedation – The first step involves the dentist or endodontist administering anesthetic to the gum tissue that is adjacent to the infected tooth, which numbs the area before any actual work starts. The dentist may also provide some form of dental sedation to help relax the patient.
- Dental dam – Once the anesthetic takes effect, the dentist usually places a dental dam inside the patient’s mouth, which isolates the effected tooth from other surrounding teeth.
- Drilling the tooth – The dentist or endodontist begins by drilling into the tooth to gain access to the pulp and nerve canals. Once the drilling is complete, the pulp of the tooth is removed and the nerve canals are cleaned out and disinfected with antiseptic and antibacterial solutions. This kills any existing bacteria and helps to treat the infection.
- Filling the nerve canals – The dentist or endodontist then fills the nerve canals inside the tooth with a rubber-like dental material and seals them with dental adhesive.
- Sealing off the tooth – The final step in the process occurs when the dentist seals off the access hole in the tooth using a dental filling. Many times, a crown is placed over the tooth to provide added protection.
Why Do I Need a Root Canal?
Root canals are most typically used when an infection forms deep inside a tooth. This can happen for a variety of reasons, but most of the time it occurs when a cavity is left untreated for a long period of time, and/or when a tooth is fractured and bacteria collects deep inside, eventually developing into decay and infection. Any time an infection is present, it’s important to have it treated right away. If not, it can spread to surrounding tissue. In the case of an infected tooth, that infection can spread to other surrounding teeth and the supporting bone tissue, which can ultimately lead to tooth loss. In extreme cases, untreated infection can even spread to other tissues in the neck and head. This can result in sepsis, which is a life-threatening condition. A root canal is an effective way of not only ridding the patient of the infection, but also saving the tooth.
Although you may need a root canal without even knowing it, the vast majority of patients will experience symptoms that indicate they need the procedure. Typically, these include one or more of the following:
- A severe toothache that gets worse when you bite down or bend over.
- Sudden onset of sensitivity to hot and cold foods and drinks; sensitivity that lingers after you’re done eating or drinking.
- Swollen and/or sore gum tissue around a specific tooth.
- Pimple-like bumps (also called “fistula”) on gum tissue.
- Darkening of a tooth or the surrounding gums.
Will the Procedure Be Painful?
Root canals have a certain reputation for being very painful dental procedures. Although that may have been true in past years, advancements in dental technology have changed all that. In fact, thanks to modern anesthetics and dental sedation methods, most people feel very little if any discomfort while going through the procedure. Patients can expect to feel a certain amount of soreness after the procedure, however, and the dentist or endodontist will provide instructions for how to deal with that discomfort while the patient is recovering at home.
What Is the Typical Root Canal Recovery Time?
When trying to anticipate how long it will take to recover from a root canal – or any other procedure, for that matter – it’s important to keep in mind that each patient is different. Some root canals are simple and straightforward, while others are more complicated. After a root canal procedure, patients can expect to be sore for a few days, and most dentists will recommend either an over-the-counter pain reliever or prescribed pain medication to help alleviate the discomfort. Most dentists will also recommend that patients avoid chewing on the affected tooth for the first few days after the procedure, and that they avoid hard or sticky foods for the first week or so. Patients also need to exercise some amount of caution when brushing and flossing. The dentist or endodontist will provide a full set of instructions on what to do and not to do to help the patient heal as quickly as possible after a root canal. Although the recovery time varies depending on the complexity of the procedure, most people can expect to return to normal activities within a day or two after the procedure. In fact, some people can return to work the same day! So if you’re wondering what the typical root canal recovery time is, the answer is a few days at the most.