Symptoms and Myths

Myths About Root Canals

There are many misconceptions surrounding root canal (endodontic) treatment. The American Association of Endodontists wants you to have accurate information. As always, when considering any medical procedure, you should get as much information as you can about all of your options. Your dentist or endodontist can answer many of your questions, and if you still have concerns, it is often wise to seek a second opinion.

Myth #1—Root canal treatment is painful.

Truth—Root canal treatment doesn't cause pain, it relieves it.

Most patients see their dentist or endodontist when they have a severe toothache. The toothache can be caused by damaged tissues in the tooth. Root canal treatment removes this damaged tissue from the tooth, thereby relieving the pain you feel. (For more about root canal procedures, see Your Guide to Root Canal Treatment.)

The perception of root canals being painful began decades ago when root canal treatment was painful. But with the latest technologies and anesthetics, root canal treatment today is no more uncomfortable than having a filling placed. In fact, a recent survey showed that patients who have experienced root canal treatment are six times more likely to describe it as "painless" than patients who have not had root canal treatment.

Myth #2—Root canal treatment causes illness.

Truth—Root canal treatment is a safe and effective procedure.

Research studies performed in the 1930s and 1940s and those conducted in later years showed no relationship between the presence of endodontically treated teeth and the presence of illness. Instead, researchers found that people with root canal fillings were no more likely to be ill than people without them.1,2

Over the past several years, however, a very small number of dentists and physicians have been claiming that teeth that have received root canal (endodontic) treatment contribute to the occurrence of illness and disease in the body. This claim is based on the outdated research performed by Dr. Weston Price from 1910-1930. His research stated that bacteria trapped in the teeth during root canal treatment can cause almost any type of disease, including arthritis, heart disease, kidney disease, and others.

The presence of bacteria in teeth and mouth has been an accepted fact for many years. But presence of bacteria does not constitute "infection" and is not necessarily a threat to a person's health.3 Bacteria are present in the mouth and teeth at all times, even in teeth that have never had a cavity or other trauma.

More recent attempts to copy the research of Dr. Price (and to check its accuracy) have been unsuccessful. Researchers now believe that the earlier findings may have been caused by poor sanitation and imprecise research techniques that were common in the early 1900s.1

These more recent studies support the truth we report today—that teeth that receive proper endodontic treatment do not cause illness.

Myth #3—A good alternative to root canal treatment is extraction (pulling the tooth).

Truth—Saving your natural teeth, if possible, is the very best option.

Nothing can completely replace your natural tooth. An artificial tooth can sometimes cause you to avoid certain foods. Keeping your own teeth is important so that you can continue to enjoy the wide variety of foods necessary to maintain the proper nutrient balance in your diet.

Endodontic treatment, along with appropriate restoration, is a cost-effective way to treat teeth with damaged pulp and is usually less expensive than extraction and placement of a bridge or an implant.

Endodontic treatment also has a very high success rate. Many root canal treated teeth last a lifetime.

Placement of a bridge or an implant will require significanly more time in treatment and may result in further procedures to adjacent teeth and supporting tissues.

Millions of healthy endodontically treated teeth serve patients all over the world, years and years after treatment. Those healthy teeth are helping patients chew efficiently, maintain the natural appearance of their smiles and enhance their enjoyment of life. Through endodontic treatment, endodontists and dentists worldwide enable patients to keep their natural teeth for a lifetime.

Common Dental Symptoms

Symptom: Momentary sensitivity to hot or cold foods.

Possible problem: If this discomfort lasts only moments, sensitivity to hot and cold foods generally does not signal a serious problem. The sensitivity may be caused by a small decay, a loose filling or by minimal gum recession that exposes small areas of the root surface.

What to do: Try using toothpastes made for sensitive teeth. Brush up and down with a soft brush; brushing sideways wears away exposed root surfaces. If this is unsuccessful, see your general dentist. If the sensitivity is coming from a decay you should see your general dentist.

Symptom: Sensitivity to hot or cold foods after dental treatment.

Possible problem: Dental work may inflame the pulp inside the tooth causing temporary sensitivity.

What to do: Wait two to four weeks. If the pain persists or worsens, see your general dentist.

Symptom: Sharp pain when biting down on food.

Possible problem: There are several possible causes of this type of pain: decay, a loose filling or crack in the tooth. There may also be damage to the pulp tissue inside the tooth.

What to do: See a dentist for evaluation. If the problem is pulp tissue damage, your dentist may send you to an endodontist. Endodontists are dentists who specialize in pulp-related procedures. Your endodontist will perform a procedure that cleans out the damaged pulp and fills and seals the remaining space. This procedure is commonly called a “root canal.”

Symptom: Lingering pain after eating hot or cold foods.

Possible problem: This probably means the pulp has been damaged by deep decay or physical trauma.

What to do: See your dentist or endodontist to save the tooth with root canal treatment.

Symptom: Constant and severe pain and pressure, swelling of gum and sensitivity to touch.

Possible problem: A tooth may have become abscessed, causing an infection in the surrounding gingival tissue and bone.

What to do: See your endodontist for evaluation and treatment to relieve the pain and save the tooth.