My experience of root canal treatment

I’ve just come back from my root canal treatment and wanted to blog my thoughts on it and to perhaps encourage anyone with any reservations with it to give it a go. I’ve taken the conscious decision not to include any images on this blog as, for me, the images are always the worst (and most unnecessary) part.

I am using Animated Teeth to get the step-by-step breakdown involved in the procedureย  (I don’t know about anyone else, but I was much calmer by knowing everything including the ‘science’!). NHS Choices also have some good resources on the subject

So here we go… no images, no scare tactics, simply my experience.

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Lets start at the very beginning (a very good place to start, so said Julie Andrews).

I have had a fear of dentists for many a year. My first recollection of a negative experience with dental issues was when, on my eighth birthday, I ate a chewy lolly and ripped a filling out of my mouth. As an eight year old, that was terrifying! My mother was rather scared of the dentist too I think, and so negativity towards dentistry has been with me pretty much all my life. I also have hypo-plastic teeth, which makes them weaker than most other peoples and more susceptible to problems. Common sense dictates that I really can’t afford to be scared of the dentist!

Apart from a short-lived stint a few years ago, I have always been to a dentist only in times of emergency, so it is no surprise that fear has been able to manifest throughout my young-adult life.

When I was fifteen, one morning a large slice of one of my molars simply fell out (about a quarter of the visible tooth). Of course, I have had a temporary filling on it over this time, however I have never had it properly looked at.

Getting my root canal done today was the culmination of an process that started nearly 9 years ago, and has been causing me a whole manner of problems ever since. I don’t think many people, myself included yet, realise how much of an ‘event’ this is for me.

So, enough background, now for the experience. I have taken excerpts of explanation from ‘Animated Teeth’ and then blogged my experience of it underneath. I hope that this is of use to some people, as it REALLY IS NOWHERE NEAR AS BAD AS IT’S PORTRAYED! (lots of people trying to show bravado and drum it all up in my opinion!)

DAY ONE (yesterday)

1. Numbing Up

If the tooth is dead, your dentist may not numb you. Mine was still very much alive and kicking (n.b. I now feel guilty for killing it!) and so they numbed me up. I would say that this was the worst bit of all of Day 1 as they are injecting right into the nerves around the tooth, but really just a minor niggle.

2. Gaining access to the nerve area of the tooth.

As a starting point for the process of performing your root canal treatment your dentist must first gain access to that area inside the tooth where the nerve tissue resides. This is accomplished by using a dental drill and making an access hole that extends down to the pulp chamber of the tooth. On posterior teeth this hole is made on the chewing surface of the tooth. On front teeth the access hole is made on the tooth’s backside.

In my case, this involved removing the old temporary filling, and tidying up the existing cavity. In theory, this is no worse than getting a filling, and with the anaesthetic, I didn’t feel anything really. The drill doesn’t hurt, there’s not really any pressure on the tooth, and personally I found it quite relaxing. We all fear the drill, right? Do you still fear it when you’re lying in the chair and you’re completely fine and not freaking out?

3. Cleaning the tooth out.

The next step of the root canal treatment process is for your dentist to clean out the interior of your tooth (the pulp chamber and all root canals). As we discussed previously, this cleaning process removes any bacteria, toxins, nerve tissue, and related debris that are harbored inside your tooth.

For the most part the cleaning process is accomplished by way of using “root canal files” and copious irrigation. Root canal files look like straight pins but on closer inspection you would find that their surface is rough, not smooth. These instruments literally are files and are used as such. Your dentist will work a series of root canal files, each of increasing diameter, up and down in your tooth while simultaneously using a twisting motion. This action will scrape and scrub the sides of the tooth’s root canal(s), thus cleaning it out.

As an additional part of the cleaning process, your dentist will wash your tooth out periodically (“irrigate” the tooth) so to help flush away any debris that is present. Traditionally, a number of different solutions have been used for this purpose. Now day’s, sodium hypochlorite (bleach, Clorox) is commonly used. An added benefit of bleach is that it is a disinfectant.

The goal is for your dentist to clean the entire length of the tooth’s root canal(s), but not beyond. As a means of determining the length of a canal your dentist may place a root canal file in your tooth and then take an x-ray. Once developed the x-ray picture will reveal if the file extends the full length of the canal or not. Alternatively, your dentist may have an electronic device that can make this same determination when it is touched to a file that has been positioned in a canal.

Traditionally the filing action of root canal files has been created by way of the dentist manipulating them with their fingers. There are, however, special dental drills (dental drills are called “handpieces”) which can hold and twist these files, and your dentist may choose to use one. As a variation on this same theme, there is yet another type of dental handpiece that produces a cleaning motion by way of holding a root canal file and vibrating it vigorously.

Granted, this bit sounds gross, and in a way, it is kinda, but again, definitely not as bad as it sounds!

YES, you will ‘feel’ some friction inside your mouth, YES, it does feel a little weird, though I wouldn’t go as far as to say unpleasant, however IT DOES NOT HURT! It does seem a little repetitive, about 15 minutes of my 30 minute appointment was spent doing at this. It is important, however, for the area to be clean. If not, the root canal will most certainly fail due to the presence of bacteria, and you will have just spent a whole lot of money and time on nothing. 15 minutes of dental grinning and bearing it is worth it if it means avoiding extraction…right?

At this point, my thirty minutes was up. My dentist X-ray-ed progress and put a temporary filling onto the tooth and told me to make another thirty minute appointment. Mine had to be made for the next day as my dentist is on vacation next week, however a dentist will typically ask you to return in a week to ensure that the area has remained bacteria free.

Day Two (this afternoon; about 90 minutes ago).

I went back today and there was not really any kerfuffle, straight in to the surgery, the usual how do you dos and nervous jokes / checks for surgery staff sobriety, and then right into the dental surgery.

This time, there was no numbing up (which, at the time, scared me witless!). Having done everything now, and looking back, it really wasn’t necessary and it is remarkable how much a tooth can take without feeling pain (plus the fact that your tooth is now dead…of course!).

Removing the temporary filling was a bit ‘yuk’ and I was still rather scared at this point. Personally, this stemmed from my experiences as a child with the extraction of some rather stubborn hypo-plastic teeth, and in theory was no worse than when they removed my old temporary filling the prior day. The difference was that she tried to pull this one out as opposed to drilling it out as she had done the day previously (presumably so as not to undo the previous days hard work!).

4) Placing the root canal filling material.

Once the tooth has been thoroughly cleaned your dentist can fill in and seal up its interior by way of placing root canal filling material. Sometimes a dentist will want to place the filling material the same day that they have cleaned the tooth out. Other times a dentist might feel that it is best to wait about a week before completing the root canal process. In the latter case your dentist will place a temporary filling in your tooth so to keep contaminates out during the time period between your appointments.

What root canal filling material is used?

The most common root canal filling material being used by dentists now days is a rubber compound called gutta percha. Guttapercha comes in preformed cones that are sized to match the files which have been used to clean out the inside of the tooth.

A root canal sealer (a paste) is usually used in conjunction with gutta percha cones. It is either applied to the cone’s surface before the cone is placed into the tooth’s root canal, or else applied inside the root canal itself before the gutta percha cone is positioned. Sometimes several cones of gutta percha need to be placed before the interior of the tooth has been filled adequately.

At times a dentist will warm the gutta percha cones (either before or after they are placed into the tooth) so they become softened. This allows the gutta percha to more closely adapt to the precise shape of the interior of the tooth.

As an alternative to the use of preformed cones, sometimes a dentist will place the gutta percha via the use of a gutta percha “gun.” This apparatus is somewhat similar to a hot glue gun. It warms a tube of gutta percha so the material is very soft. The gutta percha is then squeezed out into the tooth.

After your dentist has finished the filling and sealing aspect of the root canal process they will place a filling in the access hole they created at the beginning of your treatment. The individual steps of performing the root canal treatment have now been completed.

My dentist used the ‘gun’ to fill the root canal with the gutta percha which wasn’t particularly unpleasant and I didn’t really feel anything.

I am also due to have a crown placed over my tooth (which is fairly common I believe) due to the fact that my tooth is now rather brittle following treatment (as effectively, you have killed off the tooth and the supply of nutrients to it).

Placing a dental crown on a tooth that has had root canal treatment.

Crowns are dental restorations that cup over the portion of a tooth that lies above the gum line. People sometimes refer to dental crowns as “caps.” Dental crowns can either be gold or else have a porcelain surface so they look white like a tooth’s neighboring teeth.

A dentist will use a dental crown as a means of improving the appearance of a tooth, restoring a broken tooth to its original shape, and/or strengthening a tooth. Additionally, and very importantly, dental crowns create an excellent seal over a tooth. By this we mean that a crown cemented in place provides a barrier that is helpful in preventing bacteria and contaminates from seeping back into those inner aspects of a tooth where the root canal treatment has been performed. After a tooth has had its root canal treatment completed, any or all of these qualities which a crown can provide may be needed.

What steps are needed to make a dental crown?

Before a dental crown can be placed the tooth must first be trimmed so it is tapered in shape. This tapered aspect of the tooth will extend up into the dental crown’s center and is a very important factor in the crown’s stability. After the needed shape has been achieved your dentist will take an impression of the tooth, which in turn is sent to a dental laboratory which will create the crown. Once the dental lab has completed your crown your dentist will cement it in place.

Being completely honest, the worst part of day two was the awful cast that they put in your mouth in order to take an imprint of the area. It is like biting into a really sticky treacle toffee pudding and then, after a minute or so, being asked to try and open your mouth! Due to the sweet incident that I mentioned at the start of this post, Iย  really really was worried! Perhaps this won’t rub others up the way it rubbed me up; I think my experience was mainly based on the prior incident and the hyperbolic fear that I’ve had of sticky foods since! That, and the fact that I have not eaten on that side of my mouth for nigh on nine years! Needless to say, I shouldn’t have been worried and it was all fine in the end (though typically I had to do it twice… UGH!).

So, that’s me.

I felt no pain throughout the process, have not had any adverse effects to treatment and despite being a huge scaredy cat, I am very very proud of myself. I feel that I have broken through several of my personal barriers and now have a positive image of dentistry as a whole.

I’m due back in two weeks to get my crown (and I pray that it’s not going to be made by Elizabeth Duke [who do Argos jewellery] heh!), and I’m sure that it’ll all go well. It’s only a twenty minute appointment, and it’s custom made, so should fit nicely. I’ve gone for a gold one as it’s right at the back of my mouth; plus it’s more sturdy than a ceramic white one, which would be unsuitable for a molar.

I hope that this helps anyone who needs root canal and is worried about it. Believe me, I’ve been there and thought all sorts for the last nine years, however with a little bit of research (well, I am very geeky!) and skirting a little too closely to a near-life-threatening dental infection, I have come to learn that there are far worse things in life to fear than root canal treatment.

Of course, there will always be people who have bad experiences of root canal treatment. It’s a fact of life and obviously dependant on a whole host of variables. However, in the same vein, I worry that if I go to the supermarket that I may slip on a wet floor… does that stop me from going? At absolute worst case scenario, if something goes wrong, you’re already in good hands with the one person in the world who is able to help you; your dentist! (or maybe his/her friendly dental friend if (s)he’s the problem! :P)

Happy to answer any questions on my experience that anyone has via the comments section too – though bear in mind I’m a 23 year old lad who works in accounting… so go easy on me! ๐Ÿ˜› If you have a dentist, you may also wish to try and see if they can sit down with you and talk you through it first before commencing treatment.

Good Luck!

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About Gari

Thirty-Two year old northern lad; living out in the Peak District and rediscovering life after having had a brain tumour.

17 Responses

  1. I knew I shouldn’t have started to read that post, now I feel nauseous and dizzy ๐Ÿ˜ฆ but it was good of you to link to Choices, best health site there is! Probably not a great place to work for someone as squeamish as me :-p (Though admittedly I wasn’t this squeamish before I started here, I think it’s gotten worse as I’ve got older!)

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  2. shirley

    Thanks so much for posting this!
    I’m halfway through my very first root canal (they’ve taken out the nerve, I just need to go back to get the filling put in, and eventually the crown). It wasn’t as bad as I thought (and i am also quite squeamish).

    Just 2 questions:
    1) painwise, what was the worst phase of your root canal?

    and 2) was your tooth really sore afterwards? How long did it take before you could use it or bite on it like normal?

    I haven’t been able to bite down on the treated tooth for the past 5 days. The gum is so sensitive! I was just wondering if this was normal, and how you dealt with it.

    Best wishes.

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  3. shirley

    Hi darkaeon,

    Thanks for the suggestions!

    My endodontist has put a 2-week gap in between taking out the nerve and filling the tooth, and I’ve been on antibiotics in the meantime. I’ve had no swelling, no throbbing, just sensitivity upon contact. Advil has been helpful in speeding healing. But you’re absolutely right: it’s a drastic procedure, and some soreness is probably normal.

    I’m assuming that getting the crown is more or less painless (if not sticky). I’ll likely go for the porcelain fused to metal (it’s a molar), but the idea of having a gold tooth is kinda cool… ๐Ÿ™‚

    btw, your page is one of the most helpful I’ve found! I’ve also been doing my root canal ‘homework,’ and all the info out there is either 1) horror stories, or 2) dental professional websites that say that root canals are ‘easy and painless’ procedures. So, your no-nonsense account of the procedure is much needed!

    Anyhow, even though the anticipation is far worse than the pain itself, let’s make sure we never need to get another one again! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Cheers.

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  4. Paul

    Well done Gari, well written and sensible. The trouble with a lot of people including one I was reading before I found this, is they talk in a way that scares people unnecessarily.

    Going to the dentist is certainly not my favourite pastime but their purpose is to help not to hurt people. Very probably with yours and the lifetime of many other young people going to the dentist will eventually become something nobody will think about.

    I am 53, some people reading this wouldn’t want to know what it was like going to a dentist when I was still at school

    Thank you for taking the time and trouble to write.

    Paul.

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  5. godfrey

    Hi Gari
    I have just read your experoence of having root canal treatmeny,and I must say it has been relieved me of my worst fears.
    I visited my dentist last Thursday because ine of my crowns had a little sensitivity when I occasionally bit down on food.
    This had happened in the past with other crowns I have(14) and usually the crown came out after about 7 days of getting this sensitivity.
    My detist,who I consider to be excellent,would use a well known American procedure called pin corre to pur my crown back inro place.
    However,on this occasion,he did not think the crown was going to come out,and so he decoded on yaking a x ray to see if there was something happening under the crown.
    When he called me back in to the surgery,my heart nearly sank when he told me the result of the x ray.
    Apparently,there was a very small infection and the crowned tooth would now need root canal treatment.
    I have been doing a lot of research on the onternet in the last 48 hours,and I have read about some very good reports where people say you have nothing to worry about,but there are also some horror stories.
    My treatment apparently will require 4 trips to my dentist,but what fascinates me after reading your experience is the fact that you,and other people that I’ve read about,felt no pain when the nerve was removed.
    When I was about 16,I had to have a nerve removed from my kneecap when I badly cut my knee on broken glass,and I nearly went through the hospital roof when they performed this nastly little procedure.
    Hence,my inquiry as to how you and many others have said that you feel no pain when the nerve is removed from the canal.
    Maybe its to do with some people having different pain thresholds?
    Anyway,I feel a lot more at ease after your post,the only thing is that I will have to wait until August for my treatment as I will need to have this performed when I have holiday..

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  6. some people believe that benefits of a root canal treatment don’t last. This is owing to consequent breaking of teeth after treatment. According to veteran dental experts, this is not the treatment failure but rather the failure in restoration or construction of tooth. Breakage mainly happens to those who fail to get crowns. Therefore, the benefits can last long.

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  7. Olivia

    Hi Gari,

    Thanks for leaving this post. I just found out that I may potentially need a root canal and I started crying.

    I am petrified of the dentist!!! I needed a filling and got that done today. He didn’t realise how close it was to the nerve. He said its 30% chance that I will need a root canal. I was proud of myself getting a filling and now I am lost for words how scared I am. I know it seems silly but all those appointments and drilling…I think I would rather my tooth Out.

    My tooth is incredibly sensitive now and I’m hoping it’s the filling and not the need for a rot canal!!! :/

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  8. Hi! Great post and good to read about someones elses experience. I recently had a partial root canal followed by a ‘full’ root canal. I also found the experience OK – not really much more hassle than having an ordinary filling. The alternative was to have the tooth removed which to my mind would have been worse as this would have shown up in my smile and the cost of having an implant as I found out was around the ยฃ3k mark plus it’s so much more hassle to have a dental implant!!! So a root canal for me was the cheaper, less painful and less amount of hassle option.
    I have since done a bit of research about root canals and dental implants and written my own blog entries :
    https://goo.gl/AlGy3u

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  9. […] The vast majority of dental treatments are painless. They can still be a little uncomfortable, of course. But, this isnโ€™t the same as pain, and the benefits far outweigh the pain you will suffer if you donโ€™t look after your teeth. Letโ€™s take one if the most infamous treatments out there for many years – root canal. I can honestly say that there are five or six people I know that would turn pale at just hearing those words – even though they have never had one! Yes, itโ€™s likely to be uncomfortable, but as we mentioned before, it isnโ€™t likely to be too painful. Take a look here for a good example of the root canal experience – http://garidavies.me. […]

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  10. Daniel

    My story starts around 4 years ago. I had a filling which the dentist told me was quite close to the nerve and that I might need root canal one day. Since that appointment I actively avoided going to the dentist out of fear that I might have to have root canal, an extension of the general fear of the dentist I have had since childhood, following the unpleasant feeling of my sensitive teeth being treated from a young age.

    The tooth was mildly more sensitive since that point, but nothing I couldn’t handle and this state continued for around 3 years, until I was forced into action in April last year. I was chewing some routine post-meal gum when that filling fell out. I went for emergency dental treatment and the dentist said that there had been further decay under the filling and now he could basically see the nerve, save a microscopically thin sliver of dentin. He said there would be a 95% chance my tooth pulp would die as it had been disturbed. I prayed on the 5% that my tooth would protect itself with additional dentin (this apparently can happen), but the symptoms were plain to see. As there was no dentin between my filing and the nerve the tooth became super sensitive to temperature. I couldn’t eat with it or have any liquids near it. I signed up to a local dentist under pressure from my wife, and being convinced I would need root canal at that point, I was hugely relieved to hear at the check up that I needed to just wait and see (I am good at doing this) if the tooth settles down.

    Over time the sensitivity wore off. I naively convinced myself that the tooth had healed, whereas deep down I suspected (knew?) that the absence of pain meant it had died. For around 3 or 4 months I experienced relative calm (although I still couldn’t eat on it), although occasional twinges of pain sent me back into a spiral of fear, until the twinge went away and I could return to my comfortable state of denial.

    Earlier this year, the twinges became more frequent, but at my six-monthly check up in February, the twinge was not present and there were no visible signs of infection. Over the next couple of weeks though, the dull twinges became pains that were sharper and lasted longer each time, accompanied by moderate swelling in my gum at the base of my tooth. Still, each time the pain went away I returned to my state of denial. However, on one day last week, the pain became constant (though not unbearable) and the swelling had inflated to the size of perhaps an almond (although in my mind it felt like a golf ball). I booked an appointment with my dentist and the next day I was certain I would be having root canal.

    That night was sleepless, save the couple of hours I managed to get when I was on my last two allowed ibuprofen for the day. In the morning I was nervous but given what it had come to, I was quite looking forward to the relief of having the uncertainty around my tooth gone. I was even prepared to accept an extraction. The appointment was first thing in the morning, so I had very little time to think about it, which was a good thing.

    I arrived at the dentist and told her that the time bomb had detonated. She took a quick look and said nonchalantly, “OK, let’s get the root cleaned out”. In my head I always expected a dentist’s face to drop and say something, with head tilted to the side, like “I’m really sorry to tell you this, but… I think her absence of emotion and surprise actually helped to calm me there and then. She also told me it would be just like a filling. She numbed up my jaw, just like a filling, started drilling just like a filling, although just for a bit longer. No pain. A few other non-mechanical instruments were used, which I preferred because I actually hate the sound of the drill and the thought of it hitting a nerve. After around 15-20 minutes, a temporary filling was placed and I booked an appointment for last Monday for the second stage of the treatment. I had an epiphany at this point. I was over my lifelong fear of the dentist. Root canal was a doddle. From getting sweats from just driving past a dental surgery, or avoiding looking at people’s teeth (including my own – I used to brush my teeth with my eyes closed), I now wanted to learn everything about dentistry, the tools they use, even reading horror stories.

    In the few days before the second round of treatment, the pain subsided and the swelling started to reduce. I was even able to bite a little on my tooth. I had zero fear of the second round of treatment. Amazing!

    Monday came and the treatment was completely painless and uneventful, if not a little long and slightly uncomfortable, as I had my mouth open for at least good hour. The second round involved even less drilling, and I counted at least 8 different manual tools being used, which were needed to finish cleaning the tooth and preparing for the permanent root fillings. It was really reassuring to hear what was happening at each stage of the process, with the technology being used a real testament to the day and age we live in. I dread to think what it might have been like 100 years ago as a dental patient.

    A few days on, the swelling has reduced further, and I can bite on soft foods again and the 4 year saga of my upper left second pre-molar appears to have come to an end, with it going my nearly 25 year phobia, and I honestly feel like a new person.

    I hope this story provides some comfort to those in fear. I feel like I can now deal with any irrational phobia in my life, and I am thankful to my wife, because if she hadn’t pushed me to sign up to the dentist, I might not have had the courage to go myself and would be living in fear, agony and probably mortal danger.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Lehana Ali

    Thank you for this..

    I read your message lastnight and went into my procedure for a root canal this morning. I’m home now. I honestly didn’t feel a thing ! Except for a pinch of the numbing needle. So far I’ve take 400mg of motrin. I’m starting to feel slight pain and getting worried of the numbing wearing off. I’m. Praying for a safe recovery. My dentist prescribed anot antibiotic to prevent infection which I think is on the safer side. I just can’t tolerate pain well. Hoping it’s not as bad…I’m so hungry.

    You gave me a lot of hope.

    Thank you

    Also I got my filling done the same time as I’m not getting a crown cause I can’t afford one. I did the top left molar beside the wisdom. I’m hoping it last as long as it can…

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