It’s become the butt of jokes and the go-to example of something unwanted and unpleasant: “Sounds about as much fun as a root canal!”
Despite its poor reputation, root canal treatment today is usually quick and relatively painless. It’s performed to save a natural tooth when the tooth’s pulp (inner tissue) is inflamed or infected. It could also save you money, over time, on dental care.
But root canal misconceptions and misinformation persist. Mistaken or ill-informed ideas about root canals keep patients who would benefit from them away, which only tends to make dental problems and pain worse.
At Penn Dental Medicine (PDM), we want patients to know the facts about root canal treatment. So we’ve prepared this list of root canal myths that have been thoroughly “busted.”
Humans have been trying to treat endodontic pain—that is, pain inside (Greek, “endo”) the tooth (“odont”)—for around 2,000 years. No doubt those ancient patients were subjected to some painful procedures!
But as the Pennsylvania Dental Association explains, “due to modern advances in dental technology, painful root canals are now a thing of the past.” Today’s dentists use up-to-date technology and a local anesthetic to ensure root canals are no more uncomfortable or painful for most patients than cavity fillings.
Among the more stubborn root canal misconceptions is the idea that this endodontic procedure can leave patients worse off. This idea simply isn’t true.
In the 1920s, for instance, some researchers argued that bacteria trapped during root canal treatment could “leak” and cause other degenerative systemic diseases: arthritis, heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders, and more. As a result, tooth extractions—the most traumatic dental procedure—grew in popularity.
But during the next decade, studies using superior techniques and methodology showed these findings to be in error. Root canal procedures have nothing to do with the causes of systemic diseases.
More recently, concern emerged about supposed links between root canal treatment and Alzheimer’s disease. A study in a 2015 issue of the journal Nature claimed proteins indicating Alzheimer’s could be transmitted through some medical procedures, including root canals. This observational study involved a small sample of eight patients who died from “mad cow disease.” The patients also had Alzheimer’s-associated proteins, but no actual Alzheimer’s symptoms.
The study itself made no mention of dental procedures as a causal factor. But sensational reporting led people to draw that conclusion. The Alzheimer’s Society director of research ultimately issued a statement: “There remains absolutely no evidence that Alzheimer’s disease is contagious or can be transmitted from person to person via any current medical procedures.”
The truth is, not getting a root canal could leave you much worse off than getting one. When left untreated, endodontic infections lead to pain, swelling, tooth decay, damage to the bony area around the tooth, and tooth loss.
Yes, dentists must sometimes pull teeth. Not every natural tooth can be saved. But this reality doesn’t mean tooth extraction is always preferable to root canal treatment.
In the common “root canal vs. extraction” debate, patients sometimes think extraction is the simpler, more straightforward procedure. But extraction brings new challenges, especially the need for tooth replacements.
If you don’t replace the pulled tooth, you leave yourself vulnerable to even more serious dental conditions affecting multiple teeth. To avoid these complications—everything from trouble speaking and eating to loss of jawbone density—you’ll need a prosthodontist to provide dental implants, bridges, or dentures in place of pulled teeth.
And while the cost of a root canal may be an issue—it ranges from $500 to $1,500—this nonsurgical endodontic procedure is less expensive than the costs that follow on from an extraction, or the cost of actual endodontic surgery.
(At PDM, we help patients manage the costs—already lower than private practices’ fees—by accepting most dental insurance and providing several payment plan options.)
Now you know the truth about these common root canal misconceptions. Root canals are convenient and virtually painless, won’t put you at greater risk of Alzheimer’s or systemic disease, avoid the complications extractions bring, and can save you the cost of more complex dental treatments down the road.
What’s more, saving and keeping a natural tooth through root canal treatment brings lifetime benefits—for what you can eat, how you sound when you speak, and the way you smile!
All that remains is finding the right endodontist to perform your root canal. To help you, we’ve prepared a free download for you, What To Look For in an Endodontist. It explains what to expect during and after the procedure, important criteria for selecting an endodontist, and why root canals are a wise, cost-effective investment in your oral health.