Root canals explained

Are you facing a root canal? Get answers to frequently asked questions about root canals and learn what to expect from the procedure.

Have you ever heard someone say “I’d rather get a root canal” than do something unpleasant? Root canals are often thought of as one of the worst dental procedures to undergo, but in reality, they’re usually no worse than any other form of dental treatment. If you’re facing the prospect of a root canal and dreading the procedure, don’t panic. Root canals are relatively simple, and new dental technology can help reduce any pain associated with the procedure.

What is a root canal?

A root canal, also known as endodontic therapy, is a procedure used to repair or save an infected tooth. It’s often used when the soft tissue inside the root of the tooth becomes infected or inflamed. This can occur as a result of a crack or chip in the tooth, injury to the tooth, deep dental decay, or repeated dental procedures on a tooth.

During a root canal, the infected root is removed, and then the space is filled with a biocompatible material that will seal the opening.

Having a root canal allows you to save the root of the tooth, so you can avoid having the tooth extracted. If it’s at all possible to save the tooth, your dentist will likely recommend a root canal so that you don’t have to go through the process of receiving a replacement tooth. In some cases, however, a root canal may fail, and the tooth will eventually have to be removed.

What happens during a root canal?

Typically for a root canal, your dentist will refer you to a specialist known as an endodontist. During the procedure, your endodontist will perform the following steps.


First, anesthesia is applied to the area, followed by a protective dam to separate the infected tooth from the rest. Root canals are typically performed using a local anesthetic, meaning you will be awake for the procedure. If you have dental anxiety, you can request the doctor use a mild sedation during the procedure. There are also additional tools available, such as the DentalVibe Comfort Injection System, which can relieve the pain associated with dental injections.

Once the area is sufficiently numb, the doctor then drills an access hole through the top of the tooth and cleans out the infected pulp tissue.

Once the area is sufficiently numb, the doctor then drills an access hole through the top of the tooth and cleans out the infected pulp tissue.


Next, the doctor disinfects the hollow root using an antibacterial solution. After shaping and cleaning the site, the tooth is sealed with a special rubber-like material to fill the canals.

Protecting the tooth

After filling the canal, your doctor will likely close the opening with a temporary filling. This temporary filling will protect the tooth until a permanent crown is placed, usually 1-2 weeks later. Because a large part of the tooth’s structure is removed during a root canal, it becomes weaker. This permanent crown reinforces the tooth and helps protect it from damage.

It’s best to avoid biting on the tooth if possible until the crown is added.

How long does a root canal take?

The average root canal procedure is 30 to 60 minutes long. Complex cases may require 90 minutes. Treatment can be completed in one appointment, but if you have severe infections, multiple root canals, or curved canals, an additional appointment could be required.

After the treatment, you may want to rest for a while, but you can resume normal activities the next day.

Are you awake during a root canal?

Root canals are typically performed under local anesthesia. You will be awake for the procedure, just as you are with a dental filling. As much as a root canal might seem scary, it’s a routine treatment that can be completed fairly quickly.

If you feel anxious about the procedure, sedation may be an option. Talk to your doctor before the procedure and let them know if you’re experiencing dental anxiety. Many dental professionals are well versed in the needs of fearful patients and will take the necessary measures to make sure that you’re comfortable during your procedure.

Can you eat after a root canal?

Yes, you can eat after a root canal, but you may need to wait until the anesthesia wears off to avoid biting your cheek or tongue accidentally.

Note that the treatment can cause sensitivity, and it’s best that you eat soft foods, at least till the swelling is gone. Some of the soft foods you can eat after the procedure include bananas, yogurt, milkshakes, oatmeal, soup, ice cream, eggs, fruit smoothies, and applesauce, among others. Your doctor will likely give you a list of foods to eat, along with other post-procedure recommendations.

Also, note that spicy foods can make you feel some pain or discomfort.

How bad does a root canal hurt?

There are many misconceptions about root canals, but the truth is that the mild discomfort you’re likely to experience is nothing compared to the toothache you probably already have due to the tooth damage.

You may experience sensitivity or swelling after the procedure due to tissue inflammation for a few days, but it’s typically just mere discomfort. If need be, you can request your doctor to prescribe you some medicine for the pain.

Can a root canal go bad?

In some cases, a root canal can fail. If your pain worsens after the treatment, your doctor will assess the situation to understand its cause. Here’s how to know when a root canal procedure has failed.

High sensitivity

If you have persistent discomfort when biting or tapping on your tooth, or tenderness when grinding your teeth, there’s a high chance that the procedure has gone wrong. It could be a sign of inflammation in the tissues surrounding the tooth’s root.


It’s normal to experience swelling on the tissues adjacent to the tooth, but something is wrong if you experience swelling on your neck or face. This can happen if the tooth was not properly cleaned before being sealed.

Other symptoms of a failed root canal include thermal sensitivity and on-and-off discomfort that can last even weeks.

Note that experiencing the above symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean the procedure has gone wrong. A dental problem involving nerves may cause sensations like a toothache or medical conditions such as Persistent Dentoalveolar Pain Disorder (PDAP) and Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJ).

The take-away

Endodontic treatment allows you to relieve the pain of a damaged or infected tooth without losing the tooth. With proper care and experienced doctors, the treatment can last forever. However, just like your healthy teeth are susceptible to decay and in need of oral hygiene, so is a tooth that has received a root canal. Your mouth contains lots of bacteria, and if proper oral care is not maintained, tooth decay may occur and result in the infection of the tooth.

After a root canal, the tooth will not have active nerves, meaning you may not feel any pain from tooth decay or a cavity. Thus, it’s imperative to maintain regular oral care and keep regular dental appointments to avoid decay. Oral care involves brushing your teeth at least twice a day using a soft toothbrush, which should be replaced regularly, and using a toothpaste containing fluoride.

Make a point to visit your dentist at least twice a year for checkups. Through these visits, your dentist will be able to recognize any signs of tooth decay or other oral health issues before they turn into major problems.

Find a dentist

Looking for a dentist who offers pain-free dentistry? Our directory of certified pain-free dentists is filled with providers who are committed to providing as close to pain-free dentistry as possible! Find a DentalVibe dentist and make dental anxiety a thing of the past!


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