Root Canal Myths
March 22nd-March 28th is National Root Canal Awareness Week and there is a real need for community education on this topic.
Say you crack a tooth, or your teeth ache when you drink cold water or eat hot food. You may need a root canal. Fortunately, there are dental specialists dedicated to performing root canals, relieving oral and facial pain, and saving natural teeth: endodontists. If that’s news to you, you’re in good company. A recent survey conducted by the American Association of Endodontists (AAE) found that 54 percent of Americans are unfamiliar with what endodontists do.
“I’d rather have a root canal than (something I really don’t want to do)!” It’s a common cliché. It’s also a statement that doesn’t accurately reflect modern root canal treatment.
Root canals’ stress-inducing reputation took hold several decades ago, when root canal treatment really was painful. Today, its reputation remains unchanged, even though the procedure itself has changed. A survey conducted by the American Association of Endodontists showed 70 percent of Americans fear losing a natural tooth. Ironically, that same percentage fears root canal treatment, the exact procedure that can save their pearly whites. In contrast, 80 percent of patients who’ve had a root canal performed by an endodontist, would return to an endodontist for a future procedure. A recent survey shows that patients who experienced a root canal are six times more likely to describe the treatment as “painless” than patients who have not had a root canal.
“More than half the patients referred to our offices come to us in pain, and a big part of what we do is get people out of pain,” Gary R Hartwell, D.D.S., M.S, president of the AAE. “Endodontists are extensively trained to diagnose and treat oral pain, and we have expertise in performing dental procedures in a way that eases patients’ fears and helps them avoid pain before, during and after a procedure.”
A root canal saves a tooth by removing the pulp—the soft inner tissue containing nerves and blood vessels—that’s been damaged, usually by deep decay. A root canal is designed to eliminate bacteria from the infected canal, prevent reinfection and save the natural tooth. The endodontist cleans, fills and seals the canals, and the tooth is then restored with a permanent filling or other restoration. Nearly 15 million teeth are saved with root canal procedures each year.
In addition to the bad reputation root canals suffer regarding pain, there are other myths associated with them that, if corrected, might ease the fear that the procedure needlessly inspires in patients.
For instance, it’s thought erroneously by many that root canals can cause illness. This claim is based on research performed in the early 1900s, which suggested that bacteria trapped in the teeth during root canal treatment can cause almost any type of disease, including arthritis, heart disease and kidney disease. While bacteria can indeed be found in the teeth and mouth, their presence does not constitute “infection” and is not necessarily a threat to a person’s health. In fact, other researchers have been unable to duplicate this research over the years, and believe that these early finding may have been caused by poor sanitation and imprecise research techniques that were common in that period. Recent studies indicate that teeth receiving proper endodontic treatment do not cause illness.
A third myth is that a good alternative to root canal treatment is extraction (pulling the tooth). The reality is that saving your natural teeth, when possible, is your best option. In a recent AAE survey, 77 percent of participants said that they would prefer a root canal to tooth extraction. Artificial teeth can limit your ability to chew certain foods necessary to maintaining a healthy, balanced diet. Not only will a root canal save your ability to enjoy all the foods you love, but it will save you money. Endodontic treatment, followed by the appropriate restoration (a crown placed over the tooth to make it stronger), is usually less expensive than extraction and placement of a bridge or implant, the only alternatives to root canals. Even better, root canals have a very high success rate, with many teeth lasting a lifetime.
The truth is that for people suffering from certain kinds of tooth pain, a root canal is usually a blessing, not a curse.