How much do root canals hurt?
November 18, 2004 2:51 AM   Subscribe

Root Canals: How much do they really hurt?

I know it has to vary by patient, but generally, is a root canal a painful procedure? I've heard everything from painless to "I wanted to rip my own face off." I had one a while back that I would categorize as pretty painful, and I'm wondering if that's what I should expect now that I need another.
posted by Doug to Health & Fitness (30 answers total)
My two experiences have been that the actual procedure wasn't that painful. The aftermath was for about a day or so, like someone had punched me, but after that, just the normal pain I live with.
posted by damnitkage at 4:01 AM on November 18, 2004

The most severe pain is in the wallet, at least in my case, where insurance covered only half of the $800 procedure.

But for the procedure itself, you're completely numb. Lots of needles at the start, but after the first fw, you don't feel them either.

Otherwise, the physical pain was more of an ache afterwards in my jaw, not from the drilling and the prodding, but from keeping my mouth propped wide open for more than an hour.
posted by baltimore at 4:20 AM on November 18, 2004

Yeah, it was the keeping my mouth open that made me sore, and even that wasn't bad.
posted by Nothing at 4:49 AM on November 18, 2004

When I was 12, I chipped my tooth on the back of a metal chair. It required a lot of Novacaine, many dentist's visits, and about a year before it was all over. And in the end, I can honestly say that it barely hurts at all. Unless you have a thing about needles (which is a separate topic altogether, and one I can't really help with), there's just the simple pinprick or three in the gums, and then the annoying grinding drilling.

Basically, what everyone else said. Like wisdom tooth removal, the loudest stories are the bad ones, but the far more common stories are the just-fine ones.
posted by Plutor at 4:54 AM on November 18, 2004

I concur that it doesn't really hurt.

The thing to remember with a root canal though, is that you effectively have a dead tooth in your mouth from that point on, which progressively weakens and will eventually, if you're not carefully, start to crack. Eventually, if it's anything like mine, you'll end up with a totally split, dead tooth, which doesn't hurt at all, but is a serious pain in terms of getting food, etc. stuck in it, and which a dentist can do nothing about, save totally remove.
posted by benzo8 at 5:04 AM on November 18, 2004

Or, you could ask another question: how much does it hurt if you don't get a root canal?

In my experience, it was the unbearable, otherworldly pain of one of my teeth that drove me into the dentist's chair. I had put off getting it looked at for so long that a simple cavity had devolved into all kinds of nasty root problems. The root canal itself was a piece of cake (minus the expense of it of course).

My dentist had given me prescriptions before the procedure for antibiotics - something in there was infected and had caused a lot of swelling - as well as for Tylenol 3 (mmm...codiene). I took a half a codiene tablet before going in and with the novocaine on top, I didn't feel a thing except for sweet, sweet relief when it was all over.
posted by contessa at 5:09 AM on November 18, 2004

And, oh yeah, if you're getting a root canal you are probably going to need a crown as well, and that whole deal takes a few visits and (as you've probably guessed) is also really expensive.
posted by contessa at 5:11 AM on November 18, 2004

My root canal hurt, but not that much, less than a filling. I agree, the pain of the tooth I'd been ignoring was so much more problematic that I just felt good all the time once I got the procedure done. I had a very nice dentist who was one of those "put your hand up if this hurts" women and she had a hard time getting the tooth totally numb, probably because I'm a pretty anxious patient. So, when she had given me all the novocaine she could and it still hurt, she said "okay, I'm going to do something that is going to hurt like hell, but only for a second" and she did something [novocaine into my nerve? I have no idea.] that was like white hot pain that shot all up and down my face but only for a second or two. Then it was over, my whole face was numb [including, sort of creepily, the bottom of my eyeball] and the rest of it went off without a hitch. The boredom and the mouth-open stuff was a hassle, and that was about it. It's so much better going in before you have a real problem tooth. I hear the real horror stories are usually when there's also a raging infection to deal with.
posted by jessamyn at 5:22 AM on November 18, 2004

Not to be contrarian, but I had one several years ago and it really sucked. I'm a big wuss though, and the tooth was in pretty bad shape. It's good to hear that folks here have had decent experiences with root canals as I will need to get another one soon.
posted by the_bone at 5:52 AM on November 18, 2004

I've had two teeth go into abcess before we knew I needed root canals. I think the abcesses were more painful than the procedure. The second procedure was, by far, worse than the first because I was processing the novacaine so fast and was having lots of TMJ paint. The pain in the jaw joint was worse than the tooth.

Would I do it again? If necessary, yes. I'd rather go through that than have the tooth pulled.

Also, have an endodontist do the work. They're specialists. My former general dentist did the first one and I was in the chair for 2 hours. I went to an endodontist for the second and he was done in 15 minutes. Additionally, I didn't have a secondary infection like I did the first time.
posted by onhazier at 6:10 AM on November 18, 2004

What dammitkage, baltimore, et al. said. As stated earlier, I've had...four...five...can't remember right now, root canals and none were especially painful. Along with the restoration, expensive as hell, but not painful.

But here's my counsel: DO NOT have one done by your regular dentist. Get referred to an endodonist (sp?) a dentist specializing in such work. Root canals can be tricky, and you want someone who does them all the time and is really good at the procedure. I'm not saying your regular dentist can't get it done, but the consequences of a mistake will be painful and a bother, and you want to stack the odds in your favor.
posted by mojohand at 6:11 AM on November 18, 2004

Really, it just depends how dead your tooth is. Mine was on a particularly dead tooth and I didn't feel a thing other than vibrations. Had I opted to have another one this spring it would have hurt like a mother, because the tooth was a constant source of pain anyway. (I opted for an extraction, mostly because of price, and don't really regret it, especially since you can't even see the half inch gap.)
posted by wallaby at 6:24 AM on November 18, 2004

Didn't feel a thing, and I've had two. No kidding. No pain. Ask for laughing gas if your dentist offers it.
posted by GaelFC at 7:09 AM on November 18, 2004

definitely go to the endodontist. it wasn't at al painful; like everyone else has said, the pain in my jaw from the abcess was far, far worse.

but be prepared: when they first break through the enamel to the decayed and dead tooth stuff inside, the smell is incredibly nasty.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:12 AM on November 18, 2004

A root canal shouldn't hurt - though I have had a painful experience due to a poor endodontist. There is always some soreness the next day, but that's a function of holding your mouth open while someone exerts a lot of force on a small area.

How painful a procedure is depends on 1) how you react to or your tolerance for the anaesthetic/novocaine and 2) the skill of your endodontist. That said, a good endodontist is worth their weight in gold. Ask around and get a recommendation. The additional cost may not matter as much if your sitting in a chair gripping the arm rests in white-knuckled pain.

This is odd. Not half an hour ago, my dentist, about to replace a crown, advised me that the root canal that the crown covers now has an infection around the dead (empty) root. I now have to have to go back to an endodontist to essentially re-do the whole thing. You have my sympathy.
posted by Verdant at 7:19 AM on November 18, 2004

In true English-tooth style I am missing my front left canine and thanks to having Dr Mengele in control of my dental work the injections given to numb the nerves had not taken effect when the work was taking place.

I can safely say that having a tooth along with root broken out of your skull and then having the nerve forcibly tugged out without any anaesthetic is the most painful thing I have ever had to experience. If I had not been gripping the dentist's chair with white knuckles I would genuinely have killed that man.
posted by longbaugh at 7:22 AM on November 18, 2004

I had a root canal last year, and there was absolutely no pain at all. A very small amount, maybe, when I got the novocaine needle in the roof of my mouth, but after that (including the aftermath of the procedure), there was no pain at all. I was requested to take 600mg ibuprofen every 6 hours for the following 3 days, but it was for swelling rather than for pain. All-in-all, it was actually a very pleasant and relaxing experience (I got to lie down for an hour! During work hours!).
posted by uncleozzy at 7:42 AM on November 18, 2004

i had zero pain because the nerve was completely dead (I got hit with elbow during a basketball game). The only thing that was creepy was hearing the drill whirl endlessly and feeling the itty bitty pieces of tooth hit my toungue. Other than that, it was ok. The only bad thing was that this procedure coupled with the crown did take a lot of visits to complete.
posted by mmascolino at 8:14 AM on November 18, 2004

My fiancee was terrified of having hers. (She's quite fearful of the dentist in general.) The procedure was fine, even simpler than having her wisdom teeth pulled. She walked in, they put a mask on her face, suddenly she was sitting up and they were done. She spent a couple of days in bed, as if she had the flu, taking pills with a dull ache in her head. End of story. No problem.
posted by waldo at 8:27 AM on November 18, 2004

but be prepared: when they first break through the enamel to the decayed and dead tooth stuff inside, the smell is incredibly nasty.

I had forgotten about that smell. Oh god, the smell.
posted by contessa at 9:02 AM on November 18, 2004

Verdant: $79,200 is quite a lot to spend on dental work.
posted by kyle at 9:30 AM on November 18, 2004

I just had my first root canal yesterday morning and the procedure itself was completely painless. In contrast to my experiences with routine cavity fillings (which I have had numerous times from both dentists good and horrible), I am experiencing moderate post-root-canal pain; mostly when i bite down or try to chew in the general area. Ibuprofen every 4-6 hours seems to be enough to dull the pain (I was prescribed Vicodin, but it just makes me nauseous and dizzy), but it's still not enough to allow me to chew normally.

Like everyone else I highly recommend going with an endodontist. It was $1200 out-of-pocket, but it was well worth it.
posted by kidhuevos at 10:44 AM on November 18, 2004

I've had a few. Most were painless, if uncomfortable, but one - Oh Lordy. It had gone on for too long, hurt like an SOB before I even went in, and - (don't read anymore if you really don't want to hear about pain) - no amount of novocaine seemed to completely reach the root nerve. For whatever reason, the entire side of my head was numb, but the tooth still hurt (albeit a little less than before). The dentist squared with me: "This'll probably hurt, but it'll be quick - I'm going to drill into the enamel and squirt some novocaine right into your tooth." He was right - a few seconds of "Holy Shit!" pain bouncing up and down my spine, a quick squirt, and it was all a memory.
posted by kokogiak at 12:42 PM on November 18, 2004

I was scheduled for a crown on a back molar and a filling on the tooth directly in front. My dentist decided to do the filling first. The usual shots and such, followed by me coming out of the chair when the drill touched the tooth. Turned out that tooth was abscessed and required a root canal. Since I was in the chair already, he cancelled all his other appointments and went at it.

The tooth was so infected and sensitive that he would work for a while, give me another shot almost directly into the nerve, work for a while, another shot, etc., for four hours. I bet I left a pound of sweat on the chair.

The tooth didn't really hurt that much before or immediately after the operation, but I guess I really needed it since he never asked, "Is it safe?"
posted by joaquim at 1:06 PM on November 18, 2004

Mine hurt like a mofo. More than the pain, though, which was dulled somewhat by the Novocaine, the thing that really got to me was the agonizing headache caused by the whir of the drill against my teeth and the resultant vibration in my sinuses. Oh, sweet mother of pearl, that was horrible.

However, it was better than the alternatives. I mean, it doesn't matter how much it hurts, if you need one, you need one. I had an abscessed baby tooth (no flouride in my town's water, because that's Communiss stuff) and it was agonizing. I can't imagine how horrible an abscessed adult tooth would be.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:32 PM on November 18, 2004

fluoride. Jesus, I'm an idiot today.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:33 PM on November 18, 2004

You have my sympathy. The root canal I had was in itself not really painful (wisdom teeth are another story entirely) but do anything possible to avoid infection.

That's a world of hurt I never want to see again.

I've got a marvelous dentist in So Cal if anyone needs a referral. She came in at 8 am on a Saturday morning to deal with the root canal infection and was very helfpul.
posted by Space Kitty at 1:41 PM on November 18, 2004

As someone who's recently undergone a root canal, I have some knowledge and advice for you.

A root canal is a dental procedure where a big chunk of your tooth is lobbed off, then tiny drills are inserted into the individual roots and the living material is dug out. Living material = nerve tissue. If the decay that predicated the root canal has already reached the nerve tissue, then the procedure won't hurt one bit, because there won't be anything to transmit the "pain" message.

Unfortunately, what often happens is that there's still some nerve material left in the canals, which means you'll feel some pain. The other problem is that this isn't the kind of pain that you feel coming. It's just drill... drill... OUCH!

Also, if the root canal is on a bottom-tooth, novicaine will have to be injected into a small canal where the nerves wind up from the bottom jaw. If the dentist is good, they'll get near the canal without hitting it directly. A lot just depends on luck. If the needle does hit the canal directly, you will jump!

Once the tooth is hollowed-out, they inject an inert material that solidifies in the space. This can also be slightly painful, but in more of a dull, steady way. The top of the tooth is replaced by a temporary cap, later a permanent. You'll probably at least feel achy (some people feel like they were hit in the jaw), but the pain will subside in a few hours. Usually whatever caused you to get the root canal in the first place was a hundred times more painful, so it's a good trade.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:13 PM on November 18, 2004

My endodontist had a copy of 'Chicken Soup for the Dental Soul' next to the chair. The procedure wasn't too painful, but I felt miserable enough that I actually read several stories in the book before he started to work on my teeth. I would recommend bringing along a good magazine or some other non-dentistry-related reading material.
posted by oldtimey at 9:36 PM on November 18, 2004

I'll me-too on the recommendation to have the work done by an endodontist. I didn't have any quality issues with my root canal.

There's a lot more discomfort than pain involved. You have to have your mouth open for extended periods of time. You may drool. I have a pretty strong gag reflex, so my root canal took a long time because I kept wanting know.

I felt well enough to go back to work after having it done in the morning, but then I ran into the other problem: the numbness. Your mouth will be numb. You will have problems eating. You will have problems talking. This is not good if, like me, you do nothing but use the telephone at work. Take the day off.
posted by Electric Elf at 9:53 PM on November 18, 2004

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