Root canals have a nasty reputation. And it’s no wonder—tooth pain is some of the hardest to minimize, not mention most excruciating. But the end goal of a root canal is to get rid of that tooth pain once and for all, and making it through the recovery process isn’t so hard anymore.
Why are root canals performed?
A root canal is a procedure performed by a dentist or an endodontist (although they are generally more expensive when done by the latter). Underneath the enamel and dentin layers of a tooth is the soft interior—the pulp, where the nerves and roots are. While this area is necessary while teeth are developing, adult teeth use it for little more than telling when things are hot and cold. When a tooth suffers decay, a crack, or inflammation, sometimes an abscess or bone loss, among other things, can develop from the infection that gets into the tooth through the opening created by the damage.
Dental work that has been done repeatedly or improperly can also cause damage significant enough to allow this infection. Sometimes, it can be fixed with a crown, cap, or filling. Other times these are the cause of the damage. While pulling or surgically extracting the tooth, roots and all, can fix the problem and end the pain, it also leaves the smile wanting, eating difficult, and makes the surrounding or opposite teeth work harder during chewing and biting and therefore less strong.
What does a root canal entail?
A root canal leaves the tooth intact, negating the consequences of an extraction. A licensed professional goes in and applies a local anesthetic before creating a small hole through which the pulp, roots, and nerves are removed. The area and infection are cleaned out, and then the hole is filled up with a safe, rubbery substance (often “gutta-percha”) that is cemented to the rest of the tooth. Any other improvements the tooth needs are made, the tooth is sealed, and a cap is applied to keep everything in place.
How do you recover from a root canal?
The procedure usually takes at least a couple of visits to the dentist or endodontist. While the root canal is going on, you should avoid chewing with the tooth that is having the problems to prevent any damage to the work that has already been accomplished. Immediately after, your mouth will probably still be pretty numb, so you shouldn’t eat anything until the anesthetic wears off, as you may damage the tooth unintentionally or bite your tongue or cheek without realizing it. Soft foods are a good idea for a few days; avoid anything especially hard or crunchy.
Dental work often leaves the mouth rather painful, though. Root canals and dental technology are advanced enough that the pain is not as bad as it used to be, and can generally be managed with an over the counter anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen. The entire area will likely be rather sensitive for a few days after. Some people find an ice pack against the side of the face provides some release. If you grind your teeth or tend to clench your teeth, it’s a good idea to wear a mouth guard, especially during sleep.
The tooth often feels a little different for a few days as well. Once everything feels normal again, it is usually safe to resume business as usual. If, however, you notice any swelling (inside the mouth or to the face), your bite doesn’t feel even, or the original problem comes back, it’s important to contact your dentist right away. Any antibiotics should be taken even if the pain goes away and everything seems normal; when a complete round of antibiotics isn’t finished, the bacteria can adapt and form defenses, which can make the infection worse. The most important thing about recovering from a root canal is to practice good oral hygiene—brush your teeth morning and evening, and floss daily to keep the area clean and to prevent (hopefully) additional or continued problems.