What to Expect When You Need to Get a Root Canal

Few words strike more terror into the dental patient’s heart than these: “You need a root canal.”

In fact, root canals have earned such a bad reputation over the years that they’re commonly used as the bar by which a given situation is deemed either more or less terrible. (How many times have you heard someone say, “I’d rather have a root canal than…”?)

Decades ago, that reputation might have been earned. But thanks to modern advances in dentistry, these procedures are now fairly straightforward, painless, and wholly undeserving of the terror associated with their name.  

Far from being a medieval torture technique, a root canal is simply a treatment meant to repair and save a severely decayed or infected tooth. This process involves removing the tooth’s nerve and pulp and cleaning and sealing the tooth’s insides. When the process is complete, the tooth and its surrounding tissues should be protected from infection or abscess—and the tooth’s function won’t be affected.

If a root canal is in your future, don’t panic. Instead, take the time to familiarize yourself with the procedure so you can keep your anxiety in check. Here’s what you can actually expect when you get a root canal—no terror required.

The process will require one or two office visits.

Depending on the difficulty involved in treating your specific case, the procedure will be performed by either a dentist or an endodontist (a dentist who specializes in issues that affect dental nerves and pulp). Your dentist will determine the right person for the job.

The dentist or endodontist will start by taking an X-ray.

This will allow them to get a sense for the scope of the issue and determine whether there is an infection in the surrounding bone.

Next, they’ll numb you up.

The dentist or endodontist will use a local anesthetic to numb the area around the tooth. This will help ensure you don’t experience pain for the rest of the procedure.

Then they’ll insert a rubber dam.

This is a sheet of rubber that is placed around the tooth to protect and make it easier to target the affected area.

They’ll drill into the tooth.

This might sound scary, but remember: The anesthetic will help ensure you don’t experience pain. The dentist or endodontist will use the access hole to remove decayed nerve tissue and other material from the tooth. Then they’ll thoroughly clean the tooth’s insides.

They’ll seal the tooth.

This process will either take place immediately after the tooth has been cleaned or approximately a week later. If the tooth is infected, the dentist will insert a medication into the tooth and allow the infection to clear up before they seal the tooth. If the seal isn’t completed on the same day as the cleaning, they’ll insert a temporary filling to prevent any substances from creeping into the tooth before it’s permanently sealed.

Whenever the sealing takes place, the dentist or endodontist will use a sealer paste and a rubber compound to fill the inside of the tooth. Then they’ll place a filling in the hole they drilled to access the decayed material.

In some cases, they may do some other restorative work.

Depending on the condition of your tooth, your dentist or endodontist may choose to conduct further restorative work, such as placing a crown on the tooth or a post inside of it. Your dentist will communicate with you about the necessity of any further work.

You’ll need to take good care of the tooth after the procedure.

For a few days after the root canal, you may experience sensitivity in the treated tooth. This is normal and should go away with time. (Using an over-the-counter pain medication can help with any discomfort.) During that time, it’s smart to avoid chewing on the tooth as much as possible. Also be sure to follow any other aftercare guidelines provided by your dentist or endodontist.

These days, getting a root canal is hardly more invasive than getting a cavity filled. Once you understand what these procedures actually entail, you can put your mind at ease knowing that root canals aren’t nearly as terrifying as their reputation.