What to Expect from a Root Canal

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Posted on August 01, 2008 9:33 AM in Personal
Warning: This blog entry was written two or more years ago. Therefore, it may contain broken links, out-dated or misleading content, or information that is just plain wrong. Please read on with caution.

The dreaded root canal I alluded to previously took place yesterday afternoon.

Unfortunately for me, even though I left early enough to have arrived at the dentist's office about 30 minutes ahead of schedule, yesterday just so happened to be the first day of the Blue Angels warming up for Seafair this weekend. This annual occurrence shuts down the I-90 bridge and, because the only other bridge within reasonable distance is the much smaller, typically much more crowded 520 bridge, it took my wife and I about an hour just to get to the bridge, since everybody and their mother and their mother's mother was making their way in that direction to do the same thing we were doing. Fortunately, once we arrived at the bridge, things cleared up and we managed to make it to the dentist's office, albeit 20 minutes late.

Shortly after arriving, I was in the chair and getting anesthetized. Not ever having had a root canal before, I wasn't really sure what to expect. I just had the general impression that it was unpleasant and something that most people talk about in disdain. Therefore, I was mentally preparing myself for the next hour and a half (the time the dentist told me the procedure would take) to be nothing short of unpleasant.

As the anesthesia was kicking in, the assistant fitted my mouth with a rubber dental dam that, along with a metal clamp, isolated the single tooth for the dentist and would allow me to move my tongue around during the procedure without getting poked or prodded by any of the tools and needles used during the process. However, because that ended up feeling more like a mask that prohibited any breathing from anywhere other than my nose, I found I kept my mouth pretty much still the entire time, tongue included. In the end, the dental dam ended up being the most uncomfortable part of the experience, and it really wasn't all that bad.

Because I was sufficiently numbed on the driver's side of my mouth, I didn't really feel anything during the procedure. There was some pressure from time to time, but no pain. The only thing close to pain came toward the end when the dentist was clearing out the deepest part of one of my tooth's roots, since he was likely hitting the part of my gums where the root of the molar ends. It really was nothing more than a quick twinge of pain, though, and nothing I couldn't handle.

It's really hard to tell what the procedure actually entailed, since I kind of experienced it from a "feeling" standpoint and not a visual one. The impression I got, though, was that the dentist started out with some very thin needles and slid them into each of the three roots of the molar. After that part of the process, I was given an x-ray, with the needles still in place. Then, the needles were taken out and a very quiet and very thin drill was used to slowly work down each of the roots and take out the nerves and veins within. This is the part I'm imagining would be excruciating if there was no such thing as Novocaine, but there is, so it was painless. After the roots had been drilled through, there were lots of iterations of filling the canals with a waxy, rubbery compound and routinely injecting a saline and water solution into the canals. Finally, when that was finished, the upper portion of the molar was filled, much like it would be after cleaning out a cavity, and then I was free to go.

As one might guess, though, the process didn't end the second I got out of the chair. I was told that pain on the side of the mouth on which the root canal was carried out was to be expected, and that sometimes even swelling can occur. Luckily for me, there has been no swelling, but the area around the molar has had some pretty consistent, though not terrible, pain since leaving the office and that has continued until now, about 21 hours later. Although I was prescribed Vicodin in case the pain became too great, I haven't had to take it. I've been on steady (every six hours) 400mg doses of Ibuprofen, and though it hasn't made the pain completely disappear, it's made it very bearable. Given how I feel currently, I'm guessing my mouth will be sore for another couple of days, during which time I'll likely stick to eating soups and softer foods and chewing on the other side of my mouth.

All-in-all, I have to say that the root canal wasn't as bad as I imagined it might be. Believe it or not, there was less drilling involved than during the typical cavity-filling process, and the pain, which seems reasonable given the work done, has been both controllable and bearable. I'm definitely hoping I never have to have another one in my lifetime, but if I do, I won't quite dread it the way I did before I underwent this particular experience.

If you've undergone the same procedure and your mileage varied, please feel free to share here. I imagine with different teeth, different mouths, different people and different dentists, there's likely to be quite a bit of variance in the overall root canal experience.


Zim on August 01, 2008 at 12:20 PM:

I'd never had to pass through that procedure, but is so interesting to read how it was from your point of view.


Ian Clifton on August 01, 2008 at 1:35 PM:

Even though you said that you didn't really feel pain, I still had to cringe a little at the description. I've never had a cavity, but I have the problem of teeth coming in with weak and/or little enamel, so I've had work done on every molar I have. The one nicest thing about the dental dam is that it prevents random bits of "burning" tooth dust from landing on your tongue, which taste terrible. The dentists never seem to fully numb me, so I usually end up clenching my hands around the edge of the chair. At least every dentist I've ever met has been really nice.

I have been following your dental experiences pretty closely, because I'm nearly in the same boat. I haven't had a dental examination since I got out of the military (and that final one was a "Yup, you've got teeth; let me sign your papers" appointment). I am good about taking care of my teeth but the above complications (potentially combined with the same receding gums from brushing that you described) usually means I have at least one tooth in my mouth that is extremely sensitive to temperature variations. It will probably be a year or more before I do finally have my checkup and I hope it results in fewer subsequent visits than you had.


grapeshot on August 01, 2008 at 5:12 PM:

Hey! I just had the same thing done about a month ago. The procedure itself was surprisingly painless, but the "rotor rootering" part was, oh, discombobulating, I'd say. My dentist said that judging by the lack of blood, my tooth was already mostly dead.

Everything was fine until the Novocaine wore off, and then I had excruciating pain all over that side of my head. Thank goodness for the codeine pain pills. By the next morning everything felt fine. Although it wasn't nearly as bad as I had been led to believe, I'm hoping that I'll never have to have this done again.


joe on August 12, 2008 at 9:39 PM:

thanks for sharing your story. i broke my tooth a few days ago cracking nuts in my mouth. the premolar has a vertical fracture extending from top to bottom likely the full extent of the root. my jaw bone is keeping the tooth from separating. it hurts!
tomorrow it looks like i will have my first ever root canal to preserve my tooth.

it seems like people, such as yourself are saying it's not so bad.

is the pain greater or less than a typical, non-impacted wisdom tooth extraction?


Bernie Zimmermann on August 13, 2008 at 7:22 PM:

Joe, thanks for dropping by. Now that I've had a chance to fully recover from the root canal, I have to say that the pain can be harder to deal with than after having your wisdom teeth extracted (I've gone through this as well, though quite a few years ago). The biggest difference being that after you get your wisdom teeth out, you're given enough medication to keep the pain away. I don't think I was given the same amount of pain medication this time around, but I managed by simply taking regular doses of Ibuprofen. At one point, I just stopped taking it, and then I realized that there still was some lingering pain when I'd try and chew on the affected side of my mouth, but I felt I could bear it.

Again, I'm sure experiences vary, but in my experience the root canal was more painful than the wisdom tooth extraction, simply due to the difference in prescribed medication for the recovery period.


McCall Richardson on August 14, 2008 at 8:30 PM:

I am actually going to go through that exact procedure in a few days. Apparently I had a large amount of food stuck between two teeth when i was a baby and just about 6 months months, the neighboring tooth fell out and revealed the huge hole in my tooth. I have gone through many different procedures such as fillings and removing teeth but I hear that Root Canals are the worst. Unfortunately, my jaws do not open that wide and if a I get them to, they become very sore in a matter of minutes.

Thanks for the story, it helped!


KK from AZ on September 23, 2010 at 3:51 PM:

My experience was horrible (#18). Prior to the surgery, I was in serious pain, running around the house yelling for pain all night, watching the clock from sec to sec until the morning. I was very tired and sleepy. I ran to my dentist as soon as they open. Started the root canal surgery, I was numbed but it was still very painful when drilling, and sometime I move and yell when I couldn't hold it anymore. After an hour on the chair, my dentist called it a day because I had too much pain. He was able to see 1 out of the 3 tubes. So he filled it up with some med and told me to return 4 days later, said with the antibiotic I'm taking, I will have less pain when I come in again. I was fine with the painkiller, able to eat and all.

On the 2nd visit, my dentist kept drilling and was able to open all 3 tubes and started cleaning up. It was painful when the file (needles) reaches the bottom of the root, hope process took a more than 2 hr and he said the 3 tubes were all cleaned up but we were over time, called it a day and said next time will fill it with the posts and built it up.

Now the 3rd visit, I was numbed just like before but feel sharp pain as he try to widen the tubes. From there, he did more cleaning (nerve) and gave me more shots as I feel pain. The worst part I was very tired having my jaw open for long period of time (3 hours). I could tell he was somewhat having difficulties. At some point, he started inserting these paper-looking thin posts into my empty tubes. But the last 3 major ones (plastic looking)...GOD!!... I was in SERIOUS pain, I yelled and moved, almost had my knee touching my chin! Oh my xxxxing lord!! 3 hours had passed and the root canal was completed. My dentist said we will have to continue on the next appointment. I will have total 2 more visits and they will be for the build-up and crown.

This is the only 1 experience I ever had so I have nothing else to compare... Maybe my tooth was too hard to work on, maybe I wasn't numbed well, maybe my infection was too serious or maybe my dentist sucks... Anyway, here is my share. I will post again regarding to my build-up next week.


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