Ron Hill, D.D.S.

Southwest Endodontics


Your dentist has just told you that you will need to have a root canal.  Just the word “root canal” causes a dreaded chill for most people.  It brings to mind the oft repeated phrase,  “I’d rather have a root canal than a  . . . (plug in your own unpleasant phrase here).”

  What exactly is a root canal, and why does the mere mention of the procedure cause so much anxiety for most people?   That’s a good question.  If you actually ask people who have had root canal treatment, most of them will say that it was a routine dental procedure that alleviated their pain.  Yet the myth that it is a terrible, painful procedure persists like and urban legend.  Having had several myself, I can  honestly tell you that all of mine were virtually painless, and most of my patients say the same thing once the procedure is completed.


  A root canal is the common name used for endodontic treatment. Endodontic is a fancy way of saying “inside the tooth”.  Every tooth has tissue inside of it termed “pulp” tissue.  It consists of nerves, blood vessels and other tissues that not only forms the tooth during childhood, but also serves a protective and maintenance function throughout the life of the tooth.  This tissue can be damaged from deep cavities, trauma, cracks and previous dental treatment, leading to discomfort and an eventual abscessed tooth. 


  If the pulp tissue is damaged, it can cause the tooth to be more sensitive than usual to cold liquids and chewing.  If the symptoms improve in a few days, the pulp may have been able to heal itself.  However, if the pain continues or worsens, it is a sign that the pulp is permanently or irreversibly damaged, and further treatment will be needed.  Currently, there are only two options available when the pulp tissue is dying:  Removal of the tooth or root canal therapy.  Stated plainly and simply, root canal treatment saves teeth.  It is much less expensive than tooth extraction and replacement.  Although there are some wonderful options available for replacing teeth, none of them will function as well as the original tooth and extraction should only be considered when saving the tooth is not an option.


 Once the tissues become damaged, the tooth is no longer able to prevent bacteria from entering the pulp space and eventually, a localized infection can occur.  This has commonly been called an “abscessed tooth”, and could lead to swelling and a dull ache directly above or below the tooth.  Because the tooth is a unique organ in the body and all of the soft tissues are inside a hardened shell, the only way to treat the damaged or infected tissue is to physically remove it. 


  The vast majority of patients (over 98%) have the procedure done comfortably with only local anesthetic. (lidocaine), but some patients may benefit from other types of sedation such as nitrous oxide (laughing gas), or an oral sedative (valium) to help ease their anxiety. The procedure usually takes less than 1 hour, with minimal drilling and patients can almost always resume normal activities immediately.  After the root canal treatment is completed, you will need to follow up with your general dentist for a permanent restoration within a week or two.


  According to statistics from the American Dental Association, over 30 million root canal procedures are done annually in the United States.  The vast majority of them (over 75%) are done by general dentists, but there are specialists trained in doing only root canal therapy, and in some cases, Dr. Tollett or Dr. Bahm may decide that referral to an Endodontist is needed due the difficulty level of the case.


  It is always important to remember that delaying treatment almost always leads to an increase in pain and other symptoms.  It is the pain caused by the injured tooth that most people associate with the root canal, not the treatment itself.  


To learn more about Root Canal Procedures see our website or the American Dental Association’s Patient information pages at