A root canal is a procedure where your dentist will remove the soft center of your tooth called the ‘pulp.’ The pulp is made up of nerves, connective tissue, and blood vessels.

What is a Root Canal? And other questions, answered. [VIDEO]

May 12, 2021

Oh, root canals.

They’re like the broccoli of dental procedures – no one likes them but sometimes they’re necessary to keep your smile healthy.

We understand that for a lot of patients there’re unknowns and anxiety surrounding getting one – in fact, according to the American Dental Association, around 22% of Americans suffer from dental-induced anxiety.

So, in honor of National Root Canal Day (May 12), we’ve put together this handy guide: to answer any and all questions you may have about root canals so that you can become a more informed – and confident – patient!

Need a root canal but not sure if you’re covered? Sign up for MySmile to check your benefits!

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What is a root canal?

A root canal is a procedure where your dentist will remove the soft center of your tooth called the ‘pulp.’ The pulp is made up of nerves, connective tissue, and blood vessels.

Once the soft tissue from the center of your tooth is removed, your dentist will clean and disinfect the area before filling and sealing it.

How do you know if you need a root canal?

Your dentist may recommend a root canal when the pulp becomes inflamed or infected. Often, the first sign of this is pain in the tooth and sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures.

There are a variety of reasons the pulp can become damaged, including:

  • Decay due to an untreated cavity
  • Multiple procedures on the same tooth
  • An injury to the tooth, such as getting hit in the mouth. The pulp can become damaged even if you don't notice any damage to the tooth itself, such as a chip or crack.

Root canal vs. extraction

Although both are viable treatment options, only a root canal allows you to save your natural tooth. A root canal is a good treatment option in cases where damage to your tooth is not so severe that it can be restored with a filling or crown. In addition, saving your natural tooth will help you avoid the additional costs and procedures of replacing a tooth following an extraction.

What happens during a root canal?

A root canal occurs in 3 basic steps:

  1. Anesthetic

    The dentist will apply a topical anesthetic to help numb the inside of your lip, cheek or gums. Once it takes effect, they will inject a local anesthetic in that same area. Your dentist will secure a rubber dam (a small, thin sheet of rubber-like material) over your tooth to keep it clean and isolated during the procedure.

    You will be awake for the whole procedure unless you struggle with dental anxiety and have discussed other options with your dentist beforehand.

  2. Removing the pulp

    To remove the pulp, your dentist will make an opening in the top of the tooth, exposing the infected or injured pulp. They will carefully remove the pulp, paying special attention to clean and disinfect all the pathways (aka canals) in your tooth’s root(s).

  3. Sealing and restoration

    Once the canals are clean and dry, your dentist will fill them with a paste and rubber-like material called gutta-percha and a temporary crown or filling will be applied until a permanent one can be placed. Your dentist will tell you if you need a filling or a crown based on the health of your tooth, it’s location, and cost*.

Will there be pain before, during, and after?

Because of the anesthesia, it is unlikely you will feel pain during the procedure. You may feel pressure from the dentist working on the inside of your mouth, but in most cases, pain will be taken care of by the anesthesia.

Pain before a root canal is possible as that’s one of the signs something may be wrong. This often takes the form of aching, pain when chewing, or sensitivity to hot and cold temperatures. If any of these occur, be sure to talk to your dentist right away to have your symptoms evaluated.

After your root canal, you might feel some soreness or aching in surrounding gums and teeth. However, this can typically be managed with over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil). If you experience severe pain, or pain lasting for more than a few days, be sure to contact your dentist right away.

What will the after-procedure care look like?

If you received a temporary filling the day of your root canal, your dentist would have you back to replace it with a permanent filling or crown. This will protect the tooth and help return it to full function.

How much will it cost? Will my insurance cover it?

According to the Delta Dental Plans Association Dental Care Cost Estimator, the average cost of a root canal without insurance in Western Washington ranges between $1,612-$1,795.

For plan specific information about your coverage and estimated out-of-pocket cost, consult your benefit booklet or policy, or log in to your MySmile account.

*Crowns are a separate procedure from root canals and are therefore not included in the cost and are billed separately. Please see your benefit booklet for more information.

I need a root canal, but I have anxiety around going to the dentist. What are my options?

Thankfully, dentists understand the anxiety surrounding root canals and will do everything possible to make you comfortable. Here are a few options:

  • Be an informed patient. One of the best ways to reduce anxiety is to understand exactly why you’re getting the procedure and what’s expected. Ask your dentist to explain a root canal in detail, why it’s important for your oral health, what exactly will happen during the procedure, and what you can expect afterwards.
  • Look to the future. If you’re scheduled for a root canal, you may have been living with pain for a while. So, it’s important to remember that this procedure is highly effective at treating the source of that pain. A root canal will help prevent further pain or procedures in the future as it will get rid of any infection before it does any more damage.
  • Listen to music. Not a fan of all the noises a dental office has to offer? No problem! Bring along your headphones and queue up an audiobook or podcast. By having your brain focus on something other than what your dentist is doing, you’re less likely to feel anxious. Your favorite streaming service has tons of calming playlists. Or, try a meditation app to help keep you calm.
  • Talk to your dentist. The best way to deal with dental anxiety is to talk to your dentist. They will be the best source of information for ways to tackle anxiety head on, whether that’s by working with you before and during the procedure or recommending a provider who specializes in treating patients with anxiety.

Need a root canal but not sure if you’re covered? Sign up for MySmile to check your benefits!

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“Root Canal.” Stang, Debra. 24 May 2018. Healthline. Accessed 12 March 2021. https://www.healthline.com/health/root-canal

“Root Canal Explained.” American Association of Endodontists. Accessed 12 March 2021. https://www.aae.org/patients/root-canal-treatment/what-is-a-root-canal/root-canal-explained/