What it's like to get a root canal

Have You Been Told You Need a Root Canal?

I was told I needed a root canal and, despite my intense fear of dentists in general and root canals in particular, it didn’t kill me. It didn’t even hurt (much)!

Part of being a responsible adult is taking care of your dental health. And avoiding pain. I’m a really big baby when it comes to pain. I had to live with the pain for a month and it got so bad, I would do anything to get rid of it.

Why I needed a root canal

Exactly one month ago, I had a filling replaced on a lower right molar. The original filling chipped and was causing some sensitivity. I’m a proficient tooth grinder, so I wasn’t surprised.

What did surprise me was when, two weeks later, I still couldn’t bite down on the freshly filled tooth without pain. I had expected some tooth sensitivity, but this tooth was throbbing and keeping me awake at night. I was popping ibuprofen and acetaminophen like candy and I was miserable.

I went back to see my dentist and he did some testing on the tooth – cold test, tap test and bite test. They all hurt. He also took some x-rays. I gagged. I hate dental x-rays.

He reviewed the results with me and told me that he couldn’t see any reason why the tooth would hurt. All signs pointed to a healthy tooth nerve because it had responded to the stimuli. He couldn’t see any infection on the x-rays, nor could he see any obvious cracks in the tooth. But, he warned me that the nerve root may be dying. In that case, he told me I would have two choices; I would need a root canal or I would need the tooth extracted.

xray of teeth after fillings
My initial x-ray from my dentist after my filling kept causing pain

He prescribed some antibiotics in case it was an infection and sent my information to a specialist for a second opinion. He suggested that maybe something had chipped during the filling and offered to redo it at no charge. I gratefully accepted his offer and we scheduled the procedure. A few days later, I had the tooth refilled with a temporary filling, just in case.

To my deep disappointment, the pain didn’t go away – it kept getting worse! It was so bad at times that I had to use my emergency stash of painkillers to get any sleep. I was getting bitchy and I was ready to have it yanked. I wanted my old pain-free life back!

I called my dentist and told him the pain was worse and I couldn’t take it anymore. I asked him what he would do if he was going through the same thing. He told me once again that I need a root canal and referred me to an endodontist for a consultation.

What is a Root Canal?

A root canal is a procedure to open the tooth to gain access to the pulp inside it. The damaged pulp is also removed to reach the nerve root canals below the pulp.

The nerves in the root canals are removed with a series of small drilling tools, which also widen the canals. A solution is then used in the canals to disinfect them.

The hollowed out canals are then filled with rubber, with a sealant above that. A temporary filling is placed on top of the sealant.

The next step is a crown to replace the temporary filling to stabilize the tooth. That happens in a separate appointment.

The Endodontist

The endodontist repeated the same testing that my dentist did – x-rays, cold test, tap test and bite test. This time, the cold test didn’t hurt. I didn’t feel a thing. He told me this meant my tooth nerve was dead or close to it. He was surprised at how long it took to die. If it had been quicker, I wouldn’t have been in pain for a very long month.

He told me there was no clear reason why my tooth nerve was dead or dying. In my case, two possible causes are excessive dental work on that tooth and bruxism (teeth grinding). This was my fourth or fifth filling in that particular tooth. And I grind my teeth pretty much every night, hence all the fillings. I guess I need to start wearing the night guard that I paid $460 for – 9 months ago!

Lucky for me, he had a slot in his schedule to perform the root canal immediately following the consultation. I was so relieved because I didn’t think I’d make it another night with the pain. I couldn’t believe I was actually looking forward to a root canal! When have you ever heard of someone looking forward to a root canal???

The Freezing

First he applied a numbing agent to my gums, then went in with the needles. On my request to not feel anything, he froze my entire lower right jaw, including that side of my tongue and lip. The initial needles didn’t hurt, but I had a feeling like fireworks went off on the right side of my tongue. He told me the needle probably hit close to the tongue nerve and that’s why I felt the shocks.

Endodontic tools used when you need root canal
Instruments of torture

They left me alone for a few minutes for the freezing to take effect. That’s when I saw the tray with the torture devices, er instruments, and the anxiety set in. My tongue and lip started to become numb and the pain in my tooth was feeling a little further away. The assistant took my blood pressure. It was a little high.

He came back with some curved needles and injected some more numbing stuff. The first one hurt. I didn’t feel the second (or third or fourth) one. I was completely numb and happy about it.

Then he put a rubber dam on my mouth to isolate the tooth and keep it clean, and secured it to my tooth with a metal band. I could feel the pressure around the tooth. But NO PAIN!

Rubber dental dam used to isolate tooth to keep it clean
This is what a rubber dental dam looks like

The Root Canal Procedure

I am not an endodontist, nor am I a dentist. I have described the root canal process from my perspective as a patient. Click here if you want more technical information about root canals

He began by drilling the filling out of my tooth. I could tell it was the filling because chunks were flying everywhere. The rubber dam kept it from falling in my mouth. I felt no pain, only the vibration from the drill.

He continued drilling through the pulp. Then he started using tiny drill bits in succession on the roots.  The stench of a combination of rotten eggs and manure hit me. He told me that was the bacteria in my nerve root and assured me that he had dealt with much worse. I’m not sure how many  different sizes he used, but he was doing it for a while. I still felt no pain.

floating in pool

Then he cleaned the root canals with bleach. The bleach smell was a pleasant change from the rotten smell I had experienced earlier. It reminded me of floating in my pool and, believe it or not, helped me to relax. I was not in pain.

He put some rods into the canals and took more x-rays. I saw from the x-rays that my tooth had 3 root canals. Then he used a machine called an Apex locator to measure the length of the canals. He told me this was to ensure the proper length of the root canal space.

X-ray during root canal
This is the x-ray taken while the rods were in my tooth to ensure they were fitted properly

Then he used some tools that looked like straight pins you use on a bulletin board. He used them a lot. Different pins of different sizes. Sometimes, he used a drill. Once again, he did this for a while. It didn’t hurt.

He put some more bleach and saline in the root canals to clean them once again. Then more of the straight pins. Then more bleach and saline. I felt no pain and almost fell asleep.

Then I felt something warm. I felt it a few times. Next I felt something a little hotter. I only felt that once and it hurt just a little bit.

The next thing I knew, he was putting on the temporary filling and using the light to harden it. He ordered one more set of x-rays.

Final x-ray when you need root canal

Once he reviewed the x-rays, he took off the rubber dam and told me it was over. Although it had been a little over an hour and half since I arrived, I was surprised by how quickly the time flew. And how little pain I felt!

How Much Does a Root Canal Cost?

It’s a little pricey. Mine cost $1232 CDN for 3 root canals.  Note that some teeth can have 4 root canals and some have only 1. Almost $750 of the cost was covered by my insurance.

My tooth will need a crown to protect it from further damage. My dentist has quoted me approximately $1,200 CDN to get that done. 

Next Steps

I have to make an appointment with my dentist to explore the crown option. I’m hoping we can delay it because my insurance is almost maxed out. If not, I’ll have to bite the bullet and get it done anyway. I’d really like to keep this tooth!

What I Learned

  • As usual, I’ve learned that fear of the unknown is worse than the unknown itself.
  • Dentist and Endodontists have really cool jobs (that pay very well), but I wouldn’t want to be one. I’m not detail-oriented enough, nor do I have the eyesight or dexterity to manipulate those teeny tiny tools.
  • Root canals don’t suck as much as people think they do. Mine wasn’t a traumatic experience.I still hate getting dental work done. It’s boring and uncomfortable, even though it’s pretty much painless these days. The one exception is teeth cleaning. I love getting a good teeth cleaning!
  • I need to wear my night guard so I don’t have to go through this again.

That is my experience with being told I need a root canal. If you’ve been told the same thing, I hope this helps lay your fears to rest. It really isn’t that bad!

Please share your root canal experiences in the comments and let us know how it went for you.

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