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I remember being a dental student, and a magazine article was brought to my attention about the Top Ten most feared words/phrases from a dentist. Naturally, “You need a root canal” was only upstaged by “We’re going to remove a little bone” ! Yikes! Although we laughed it off, it’s no laughing matter, as fear and anxiety is what keeps a lot of people from having proper dental care, or choosing less-than-optimal care.

To make matters worse, there are still some myths floating around (thanks to the Internet) about the dangers of root canal treatment. You name it, you can probably find it. Very unfortunate.

What is a “root canal”, and why was it (or is it) so feared?

“Root canal” treatment consists of removing dead or dying nerve tissue from inside a tooth, what we dentists call the pulp tissue. This treatment is needed primarily when bacteria has infected the pulp and is causing pain or significant, lasting temperature sensitivity. There can be other reasons for this treatment to be done, which is not really the scope of this blog, and besides, you really don’t want to know anyway, do you? (If you do, send me an email.)

Early “root canal” treatment (by early, I mean anytime prior to at least 1970 …) was indeed something not to look forward to, as the art and science of this treatment was still in its infancy, relatively speaking. There were multitudes of treatment techniques, and most were long and elaborate, and some were just downright – well, dangerous. But nobody knew, and everybody was trying to help people with tooth problems. It didn’t mean that it was bad treatment then, and it doesn’t mean it is today, either.

Fast forward to treatment today. You should expect from “root canal” treatment in most every situation to be a single visit appointment, which should be as comfortable as any other dental procedure. Why? Technology allows us to treat the infection properly with antibiotics before treatment (if needed), provide good anesthesia, and clean and fill the pulpal canals very accurately inside the tooth with little but minor soreness for a few days. Yes, there are reasons that soreness could linger, the majority of the reasons being caused by delayed treatment, something dentists have no control over.

You should also know that the inside of teeth can be very complex which can compromise treatment, and there are limits still today to our diagnostic capability – such as determining whether a tooth has abscessed because of a fracture and just how far that fracture extends. Fortunately, some day not even that will be a limitation. I hope to see it!

Of course, the best advice is to avoid “root canal” treatment totally by having regular check-ups and having needed treatment done immediately. Over 95% of people who receive root canals could have prevented needing them in the first place.

If you need “root canal” treatment, be sure to ask your dentist if this is a procedure he or she regularly performs, and if not, see a specialist for treatment. Although the vast majority of “root canals” are done by general dentists, not all general dentists provide that service.

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First Certified Green Dentist in Little Rock, Arkansas

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Recipient of the APA's National 2004 Best Practices Honors

Fellow of the American Academy of General Dentistry

Member of the American Dental Association

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