Tell me about your root canal!
May 3, 2012 12:23 PM   Subscribe

Tell me about your root canal!

Long story short, I had a VERY deep cavity filled about a year ago on my farthest-back molar, but it hasn't quite done the trick and I probably need a root canal. My (awesome) dentist has told me I can wait as long as I like to have it and waiting will not harm me aside from discomfort. I may finally be getting to the point where the pain is overriding my (overwhelming, absolute, abject) fear of the procedure, but I'm not quite there yet. My regular appointment is coming up, and I'm on the fence. I hate everything about having cavities filled, in fact, over the last few years I've been finding even a basic cleaning very unpleasant.

So. What does it feel like? When I'm getting a cavity filled, I can still feel pressure and sometimes pain despite being thoroughly numbed. Does it take long? Can I/should I seek to have it done under general anesthesia? If it's relevant, I have pretty healthy teeth and see the dentist every 6 months--this would be by far the most dramatic work I've had done other than surgery to remove my wisdom teeth.

Thanks for your help, friends.
posted by rinosaur to Health & Fitness (49 answers total)
Ask for "twilight" anesthesia if that is something your dentist is willing to do. A couple pills before your appointment, a little gas, and you will be completely loopy for the whole thing. Just make sure you have a ride arranged. This is what I did.
posted by internet!Hannah at 12:28 PM on May 3, 2012

For my root canal I went to a specialist. Your regular dentist can certainly do it, but if you are anxious about it, consider an endodontist. Bonus you get a fresh pair of eyes on your teeth for a second opinion. Going to an endodontist means they are set up to do root canals, to make sure the pain is managed, and to distract you in the chair. Mine had a menu of movies to choose from, so I got to watch "Blazing Saddles" during the procedure.

The pain that got me into the dentist's chair was infinitely worse than anything I experienced during or after the procedure.
posted by ambrosia at 12:30 PM on May 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm having my second root canal this afternoon, and, like the previous one, this one will be done under IV sedation. The first time, because I slept through the whole thing, and the entire nerve was removed, I never felt a thing and woke up feeling like I'd had a refreshing nap. Needless to say, I highly recommend going this route!
posted by smilingtiger at 12:32 PM on May 3, 2012

I've only had my root canals (two of 'em) done by endodontists. No anesthesia aside from an injection (not lidocaine, I don't get much from lidocaine - but a relative of it). The injections were as unpleasant as any I've had, and I hate the taste of dental stuff in general ... but I felt no pain until I was home, and that was easily managed with vicodin. Definitely worth doing, given the pain I'd felt before the procedure.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 12:35 PM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've had two. In both cases, they used local anesthetic, which doesn't have much of an effect on me. From my point of view in the chair, it was just like any other cavity, except it took longer. The part that actually hurt the most for me was that rubber dam thing they stuck in my mouth. My jaw ached after a short while from being forced open so much, and I had an hour in the chair both times.

If you're freaked out by the idea of an extra-long procedure, then I'd do as internet!Hannah suggests and get them to give you laughing gas or something.
posted by LN at 12:36 PM on May 3, 2012

My root canal was totally painless. I was awake for the whole thing. After the initial shots. I just sat there for maybe an hour as they drilled and grinded. There was no pain thanks to the Novocaine, just the discomfort and pressure of having someone work on my teeth.

I should add that I had mine on Sept. 12, 2001, so I was sort of in the mood of "Well, this isn't so bad on the grand scheme of things", which may have made it easier to deal with. It really wasn't that bad though and I've had regular cleanings that were a lot more painful.

Also, about ten minutes before she was done with the root canal she informed me that I would now need a post and cap (or crown?), which she had said nothing about when she told me I needed a root canal. So on top of the drilling I had to come back to have my tooth ground down to a nub and capped with a fake tooth which cost me another couple grand and to this day I still notice in my mouth in a way that I don't notice my other teeth. So you might want to ask your dentist about that in case it's a standard part of a root canal.
posted by bondcliff at 12:36 PM on May 3, 2012

It's not necessarily super bad. My pain during the root canal was extremely minor and it was much less painful than the abscess that brought on my need for the root canal.

I learned I needed a root canal when I developed an abcess after getting shoddy dental work done in the third world. I was terrified because I have whatever the word is for fear of dentists, and I am unable to take whatever relaxing drugs they offer to calm patients down. Of course root canals have a rather awful reputation so I thought I was in for it. It took a lot of pain from the abscess before I finally went in to my regular dentist.

It didn't take long at all to get done. The most painful part was the anesthetic injection. There was some very minor pain when they used the electric thing to measure the depth of the root or whatever it is, but very bearable. I looked quite comical with this electric probe thing dangling off my lip, I'm sure. Then it was drilling, filing, and the only other painful part, pouring some kind of melted rubber stuff into the root. That was more painful than the electric thing but still nowhere near as bad as the anesthetic or a typical cavity filling procedure. Then the filling and there I was, ready to take on the world with my new root canal'd tooth.

Of course, your mileage may vary. No need to go in expecting the worst though. Trust me, it's much nicer to get it done than to suffer through the misery of a fucked-up tooth. Most likely at the end of it all, you will kick yourself for letting it go so long.
posted by Sternmeyer at 12:36 PM on May 3, 2012

I am a wimp and coward regarding dentists. But I was fine having my only (so far) root canal done. The main reason I think was that it was so interesting and my dentist kept up a running commentary about what he was doing! Might not suit everybody but it kept me calm.
posted by sianifach at 12:37 PM on May 3, 2012

I wasn't sedated during my root canal. I felt pressure, because the dentist was pressing down on my jaw a lot, and obviously I had my mouth open quite far. I only had pain when the dentist touched the infected nerve, and she immediately injected more numbing agent. To be honest, even that wasn't painful as much as it was surprising (and I had a very badly infected tooth). The procedure took around three or four hours, if I remember correctly. I was very sore the next day -- couldn't open my mouth far enough to take a bite of a banana -- but as soon as I took some ibuprofen, it was definitely manageable.
posted by neushoorn at 12:37 PM on May 3, 2012

Honestly, I was totally afraid of root canals because I had always heard such bad things about them, I was so tense waiting for it to be awful, and the awfulness never arrived. I did have mine done by a specialist, so I don't know if that helped, but I would get a root canal done any day of the week vs. getting a cavity filled, which in my personal experience is much, much worse. The only bad part of the root canal is getting the crown mold done afterwards, you have to sit for a few minutes with this awful stuff in your mouth, but the root canal itself? Absolutely not a big deal.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 12:39 PM on May 3, 2012

Mine was unpleasent , but basically just a really long filling. Holding your jaw open that long is the worst part.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 12:41 PM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Despite the fact that it's incredibly painful in the wallet department, the root canals I have experienced have all been far less painful then any trip to the regular dentist.

The endodontist is a specialist. This is what they do all day long. They could do it in their sleep. I've found that my endodontist, for whatever reason, is also far better at the whole numbing up process with novacaine before hand. I feel barely a pinch from the needle, and no pain whatsoever during the process.

On the one occasion when the nerve was somewhat oddly placed, and the novacaine wasn't doing the trick, they did some odd thing where they put the needle straight into a vein/nerve? This made my heart go VERY VERY fast for a minute, as they warned me it would. Adrenalin straight into the system. But after that? you could have hit my in the head with a hammer and I wouldn't have felt it.

They will put a small sheet of rubber in your mouth during the process to protect the rest of your mouth/the area around your tooth while they work. That can be a little annoying because it's a sheet of rubber in your mouth for an hour, which gets old fast. I also found it helps to get a feel for the rhythm of the procedure, so you close your mouth slightly while when they aren't actively working on it, give your jaw a break from being open for so long.

They offered me a break at the halfway mark, specifically to let my jaw rest, if I wanted it.

There will be some soreness a couple hours after. Go get a nice fruit smoothie and some advil! Or, you can ask them for a prescription for something stronger.

That's about it, all will be well by the next day!
posted by instead of three wishes at 12:42 PM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I went to an endodontist for mine (front tooth), and I'm pretty glad I did. He said it was one of the harder root canals he'd ever done on a front tooth; he thought my grinding (which is probably what killed the tooth in the first place) was likely the culprit in making the inside of the tooth have lots of funny bumps.

Even though it took quite a while for a front tooth, really the problem wasn't the pain (I only felt a bit) but the pressure-- I could feel the endo mucking about inside my tooth and it really weirded me out. I was a bit sore later mostly from having my mouth open for so long. But all of this was much much less bad than the pain in the poor dying tooth before I had the root canal done.

In any case, endos are set up to do root canals, and they do tons of them, so they'll catch any oddness much faster, and be able to deal with any weirdness (like mine) much more smoothly.
posted by nat at 12:42 PM on May 3, 2012

1st root canal - absolute nightmare in which the endodontist and his canned-ham sized hands dislocated my jaw, but the tooth itself remains pretty rad and it's been 14 years

2nd root canal - easy peasy but it failed supercatastrophically about 8 years later causing a nasty bone abscess that required a long painful extraction and 4 bone grafts to repair

3rd root canal - easy peasy and almost totally painless but it didn't save the tooth so it was extracted a year later

the first one was done with local anaesthesia - NEVER AGAIN. the second two were done with awesome drugs and relative unconsciousness.
posted by elizardbits at 12:45 PM on May 3, 2012

Two here, buth done by an endodontist (two different endos).

It was the bet thing that could have happened, as it relieved the pain in my tooth.

The other option is an extraction of that last molar, which I have had (for unrelated reasons). That was also not nearly as bad as I expected.
posted by Mad_Carew at 12:46 PM on May 3, 2012

I have had two root canals, both with just the usual injection of filling-type numbing agent. Like you, I often feel pain through that injection, but mostly I just let the dentist know and they compensate. Any good dentist will be happy to give you a double-shot, and hopefully that'll do the trick for you as well as it does for me. They will also give you another injection if you let them know you can still feel something. I think my record is maybe 4 shots?! Is there a maximum? I don't know! Both of my root canals have been done by normal dentists, not endodontists, and I have no complaints.

I did still feel some pain at the very bottom tips of my last root canal--I probably could have asked for a third shot, but the pain was SO MUCH LESS than the infection had been, and I just wanted it to be over, so I just shut up and dealt with it. It wasn't that bad, definitely no worse than a filling, although it does take longer. The sheer relief of no more toothache afterwards has made root canals seem like relatively rad things to do, retrospectively. The payoff is bigger than with a filling.

On the furthest-back molar, you will definitely need a crown. That's where my first one is, and they arranged to do the first part at the same time, if I recall correctly. My second one is a premolar, and I'm also going to need a crown there, but my dental insurance ended right after I got the root canal, and the dentist told me it's fine to wait up to a year, if I'm careful not to chew anything too crazy with that tooth. No not-quite-popped popcorn kernels for me!

(Oh, and getting a crown done was not that bad, either. I was seeing the most awesome dentist in the world at the time, though. Man, I still miss her.)
posted by snorkmaiden at 12:54 PM on May 3, 2012

I'm a very (very) anxious dental patient, and was terrified about my root canal. It was such a relief to have it done, it was so much less awful than the pain I had from the tooth beforehand. Depending on the tooth (how many roots it has, etc), it should taken an hour to an hour and a half, and will likely span two appointments, a week or more apart, possibly a third, shorter appointment for crown placement, assuming you'll need a crown. The shots do not feel good, but it's an immediate pain that goes away and they won't work on you until you are totally numb. After that, it's a lot of pressure, drilling and filing. The sound of it all makes me feel insane, so I had my ipod on very loud and my dentist would touch my arm if she needed to talk to me. As freaked out as I was, it was FAR less terrible than I would have imagined.

Consider seeing an endodontist, root canal is all they do, and I think the experience might generally be better.
posted by upatree at 12:54 PM on May 3, 2012

I had a root canal under local that was mostly uneventful, except that the endodontist found out I was a Yankees fan. He was a Red Sox fan and quizzed me on Yankees trivia with a dental dam in my mouth.
posted by mkb at 12:56 PM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with those who say it's like a long filling and actually less painful than many other types of appointments. And I was totally terrified going into it. Now I would not be afraid at all to have it done again.

I had no sedation, just numbing, and the endodontist told me to raise my hand if I needed more at any time (and I never did). It took about an hour and a half.

Only two things really bothered me during the visit: 1) The smell. Holy lordy there was sort of a burning rubber smell that I still don't know the reason for. 2) A little accident with the bleach. A small amount of bleach is used in the procedure, and somehow I moved while he was using it and I swallowed a drop. Oh man. Harmless, but gross.

I'd much rather have this procedure done while awake, alert, and scared than knocked out with general anesthesia.
posted by dayintoday at 1:05 PM on May 3, 2012

I went to an endo for my root canal as well and I HIGHLY recommend it. It was much faster and less painful than many fillings I have had done but a regular ole' dentist, BUT my little tooth nerve had died (sad face) so there wasn't any pain to feel. I honestly felt nothing at all. I listened to my iPod so I didn't really hear the drilling. I also recommend bringing music/headphones.

I also got a lidocaine gel thing before the Novacaine, so I didn't even feel that! It was great, honestly. I played sports and stuff the day after and didn't really experience any pain. I have had worse toothaches.

I have big dental fear, and anti-anxiety medicine helped me. A lot of dentists will prescribe you, like, one Valium or similar to take right before the appointment. Get in on that if you can!
posted by Snarl Furillo at 1:21 PM on May 3, 2012

The last root canal I had (about a year ago) was done by an endodontist, it took a little over an hour and it was not painful, although I haven't had problems with pain during other dental procedures, and I know that can make a difference. One of my friends apparently has areas in her mouth that simply cannot be numbed no matter how much they give her--her dentist told her this--and she has a terrible time with dentistry. From what you're saying, you may have some pain/anesthesia issues--talk to your dentist about that, and make sure you're very clear during the procedure about telling them if you have discomfort (or even lack of numbing--the way my dentists tests for this is to tap on my teeth and have me tell her if it sounds/feels different. Sometimes it doesn't, or I'm not sure, and I've always been willing to tell her that, and she'll give me another shot.)

I'm anxious about dentistry (never have your wisdom teeth taken out with local anesthesia) so I'd hoped for sedation dentistry, but I couldn't find anywhere that did it that would also accept my insurance. My dentist gave me a prescription for diazepam (valium) before she sent me to the endodontist, and that helped with the anxiety. I brought my own ipod and that helped too.

My dentist did tell me that I'd need to have someone else drive me to and from the appointment if I was going to take the valium, so my husband took the day off and went with me. I actually thought I could have done it myself, but he said that the valium made me dippier than I gave myself credit for and I shouldn't have driven myself.
posted by dlugoczaj at 1:21 PM on May 3, 2012

I have had 2 root canals. Both were like long fillings, and much much less painful than the preceding toothache. I had local anaesthetic and nurofen + codeine afterwards.

I just had a regular dentist do them. He was fine. I haven't had a problem with them and they are about 8 years old now. They weren't cheap though.
posted by plonkee at 1:23 PM on May 3, 2012

I've had one, done by an endodontologist (actually a professor of endodontology) and overall I would say it was less painful than a filling (although the needles were just as pinchy and scary), just much, much longer in duration. The endodontologist referred to it (during the procedure) as "a nightmare root canal!" but it was not that bad for me - she just had trouble getting access to the tooth (furthest-back upper molar) so it took forever and she kept breaking her little instruments.

I am pretty good at quashing my dental anxiety, though, and had had all four wisdom teeth out under local anesthesia (I hate being under general anesthesia) a month or two before the root canal, so that probably made it seem even easier than it was.
posted by mskyle at 1:31 PM on May 3, 2012

I've had a lot of root canals. I've always had an endodontist do them. I may have lucked out, but my endodontist is amazing. Really nice, super attentive, and does a great job. I like her bedside manner, basically, so I'd suggest that you find a dentist or endodontist whose bedside manner is good.

I do have to tell you: the pain you're in when you need a root canal is so, so much worse than the fixing. The fixing is not painful because you won't feel it. The worst part was the Novocaine shot, and then the pain will be over.

I would talk to your dentist about their pain management strategy throughout the procedure. Will they give you more Novocaine if you need it? How will you alert them? Etc.

Now, I use to - and still - have dental anxiety, but I know how to manage it so much better, partially because of my endodontist. Ask whoever will do your root canal about their anxiety management strategies. I took a valium before the procedure and had nitrous throughout. They were super attentive about the nitrous and adjusted the dosage throughout the procedure whenever I needed. It made it possible for me to get through the anxiety and let my endodontist just work on my teeth.
posted by k8lin at 1:43 PM on May 3, 2012

I saw an endodontist for one, my regular dentist for another. Both were fine, not worse than regular fillings. Being a big nerd, I was kind of thrilled with the little tool that he used to determine whether he'd drilled all the way down inside the root - it was kind of like a fish-finder, and emitted a series of beeps indicating how far there was to go. I found paying attention to the tools and technology to be a good antidote to thinking about the flesh/body side of the procedure, YMMV.

General best-practices:
1. Take 2 ibuprofen just before you go into the office, and they'll be at peak effectiveness just when the numbing injection starts to wear off afterward. You'll still really know when the numb wears off, but it will be a lot less pain if you've ibuprofened in advance.
2. When it's almost time for the injection, do not look at it, or in fact anywhere near your dentist. If he's standing off to your right side getting the tools ready, pick something in the upper left corner of the ceiling and stare at it intently.
posted by aimedwander at 1:44 PM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'll agree with much of the above. Uncomfortable but not really painful during the procedure. Pain was easily managed with light Vicodin the first 12 hours. I usually plan on taking the full day off and having a relaxing afternoon/evening afterward.

I find temporary crowns annoying and not quite right. If you still have problems after the procedure, make certain to get a followup because they don't always work.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:48 PM on May 3, 2012

I haven't had a root canal.

However, if you are pain-averse, be sure to tell your doctor. I had a terrible dentist for years who was never able to numb my jaw properly. I would tell him "it still hurts," and he'd pump me full of more novocaine until my entire face and throat were so numb I couldn't tell if I was choking or breathing, and then I'd STILL feel pain when drilling, which of course had to all be done sitting bolt upright since I couldn't control my swallowing. UGH.

I went to a new dentist. I told him this and he would check in with me frequently, touching my arm and asking if I was feeling any pain. I didn't, and when he works he doesn't need to put as much novocaine in me.

So just be sure to communicate with your dentist. They are used to this.
posted by MonsieurBon at 1:49 PM on May 3, 2012

I had a root canal done several years ago by an endodontist at University of Washington's School of Dentistry faculty practice (no student dentists). I did not undergo general anesthesia; he used local instead (and a topical at the injection site). But I am not an especially nervous person at the dentist, so if you are, general may be more comfortable for you. I did feel the pressure of the tools, but no pain. I don't recall exactly how long it took, but I'm quite sure it was less than a few hours because I was there just one afternoon for the actual root canal part of my treatment. I think I had to come back a couple of days later to have the temporary filling replaced with the permanent one.

You should speak to your dentist about having anxiety about being there. Good dentists can deal with anxious patients and offer options. Be sure to let your dentist know if you can still feel pain even with local anesthesia.
posted by asciident at 1:50 PM on May 3, 2012

Oh, I forgot to mention. I did not experience post-procedure pain. I didn't take any painkiller (no Vicodin, no ibuprofen, etc.) following the procedure. I was more careful than normal when eating for a couple of weeks, but that was at least in part getting used to the filling.
posted by asciident at 1:54 PM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have had a few root canals, all with just local anesthesia. As long as you go to an endodontist, you should be fine. The only bad experience I have had was when I went to a normal dentist and not an endodontist for a root canal. Never again!

Root canals (done properly) in my experience are actually less painful than having fillings put in, as long as you are very firm and insistent about having more numbing stuff if you need it. I tend to need more local than the dentist expects, but these days I am not shy about asking for more anesthesia if I need it. Plus, it makes the dentist's job easier to have me calm and zoned out and not tense and jumping with every vaguely-painful vibration.

Afterward, the injection sites from the local are usually more painful than the root canal tooth (that is to say, not very). Since what they're doing is drilling out the pulp and nerve, the tooth is usually not painful at all. Ibuprofen has typically been enough to manage what pain there is, though since having the one bad experience I don't turn down stronger stuff just in case.

I have had way more dental work than any person my age should have had, and getting a root canal is honestly not much worse than having a bunch of cavities filled. They're waaaay better than a tooth extraction; the main annoyance is having to come back for the cap, and the fact that they're usually really expensive.
posted by Arethusa at 2:25 PM on May 3, 2012

I had two root canals done by an endodontist about four years ago. They were both in the very back molars, so I expected a bad time.

It wasn't unpleasant at all. The worse part was the shot of local anesthetic. Between that and the gas, though, I felt nothing. I was conscious and heard everything. I tried not to open my eyes too much. Sometimes there was a smell of something burning. But I was at peace and unmoved. (The endodontist was busted for false scripts and cocaine a couple weeks after my procedure, so it's possible it was liberal with the gas, too.)

I don't know if dental dams are standard procedure with all endodontists, but I recommend them. It was a great relief to know I wouldn't accidentally swallow anything, put my tongue in the way of a sharp instrument, or worry about fluid collecting in the back of my mouth.
posted by Boxenmacher at 3:17 PM on May 3, 2012

Having a root canal isn't so bad. I had more discomfort from the stress of having to have a root canal than I had from the actual root canal. I'm not saying it was fun. IT SUCKED. But it didn't really hurt, and when I came home that night, I was fine.

What really helped me was the clock on the wall. I don't remember how long it took, but let's say it took an hour. The dentist told me ahead of time "This will take about an hour." I was starting to feel panicky about 20 minutes into it. Just nervous really. But then I looked at the clock and thought "Oh, I'm already 1/3 of the way through this. Hell, I'm fine."

If you convince yourself it'll be awful, it'll be holycrud awful. But if you realize it's not that big of a deal, it won't be a big deal. Millions of people have root canals. It's not so bad unless you convince yourself it will be.
posted by Mr Ected at 3:48 PM on May 3, 2012

I've had about a dozen root canals, all with local anesthetic only. Modern root canals are BORING. Boring is good.

Root canals have a terrible reputation, from the old days. Used to be, they could be quite painful. All the root canals that I've had in the past ~15 years, done by endodontists on uninfected teeth, have been very nearly painless. A couple of the older ones (1970s - 80s), done by a general dentist on infected teeth, were pretty nasty. I won't bother with the details, because they are just not relevant to how things are done today.

One important variable is whether the nerve in the tooth is already dead, or still alive. If it's dead, you really can't feel any pain in that tooth except from an infection, or irritation around the gum line. Touching the unanesthetized nerve of a live tooth will cause the kind of lightning-bolt pain that will make you jump out of the chair and cling to the ceiling, whimpering. Endodontists are expert with local anesthesia, and they can prevent this.

GET IT DONE SOONER, NOT LATER. Your dentist probably has a good reason for saying that there's no rush. But, especially since you're having pain, it seems that the longer you wait, the greater the possibility that the tooth may get infected, even abscessed. Aside from the discomfort (no, PAIN!!!!) of that monster toothache, doing a root canal on an infected tooth is more difficult for the dentist, and more painful for you. Get that root canal NOW, while it's easy, so you can say, "what's all the fuss about?".

Get it done by an endodontist, not your general dentist. Spend the extra money. There is no amount of money I wouldn't have spent if I could have avoided some of those toothaches. Aside from having better training and experience, endodontists have specialized equipment that makes the process much more comfortable, with better results.

Some of the details: It can be a long haul, probably >1 hour, maybe 2. There can be odd chemical smells from the materials they use. Sometimes they light a flame and heat things. You will feel pressure, but you shouldn't feel pain. If you do, stop the dentist and have them do something to relieve it.

Some practical tips -- learn some progressive relaxation or deep breathing techniques for relaxation. If a moment comes when you feel a little anxious during the process, remind yourself, "my job is to breathe, and relax." Have some music or a story to listen to. It might be relaxing to have something in your hands -- worry beads or a squooshy ball. It might be nice to schedule a massage for the next day, cause your neck and shoulder muscles can get knotted up from staying still in an awkward position for so long.
posted by Corvid at 3:50 PM on May 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've had seven root canals (thanks, shitty pediatric dentist!) and they're always fine.

I strongly suggest:

* get it done with an endodontist; this is what they do;
* if you're nervous, most definitely let them know beforehand and most likely they'll prescribe something like Valium or something to take the edge off;
* prepare yourself that they place this weird rubber dam that completely covers your mouth, so just relax and breathe through your nose;
* ask for a dental block. It's placed between your upper and lower teeth and holds your mouth open for you (and I've had procedures that lasted over 2 hours so they really helped);
* headphones help...there's a lot of drilling;
* there are definitely some weird burning smells and chemical/bleach smells. Don't worry.

I've had all of them done with Novocaine, and I've never felt a thing.

Ask for Vicodin afterwards; you will also get antibiotics. But you may need the Vicodin, so just ask.

But as you can see from the advice above, there's nothing to worry about.
posted by kinetic at 3:54 PM on May 3, 2012

I fell asleep during my root canal. Dentist gave me Valium to take an hour before I came in.
posted by KogeLiz at 4:06 PM on May 3, 2012

I'd go with general anaesthesia for pain relief rather than local anaesthetic if I were ever to undergo another root canal.

My first root canal was on a pre-molar, performed by a regular dentist. It was relatively painless: like any of my other dozens of fillings, but longer in duration.

My second root canal was on a molar, and, since my regular dentist wasn't comfortable working with five intertwined roots, was performed by an endodontist. It involved ten minutes of the most intense pain I have ever felt in my life. This was because, try as he might, the dentist was unable to numb the tooth fully. And, as luck would have it, not all of the tissue in the tooth was dead -- some was still very much alive! However, since we'd already crossed the Rubicon by having opened up the tooth and dug out the dead tissue, the dentist recommended that I just grin and bear it. Which I did... while he spent the next ten minutes scraping out live, fully-functioning tissue from the inside of the snakey roots of my tooth. At its worst, I pleaded with him to do something -- anything -- so he had a seemingly brilliant idea: shoot the local anaesthetic directly into the roots themselves. This failed miserably: counterintuitively, it just burned. A lot. It felt like it was burning the live tissue inside my tooth, creating twice as much pain than before. Undeterred, the dentist then gave it another try...

The experience was so traumatic that I was on edge for a week. I've broken teeth and bones before (even a pelvis), and undergone a few surgeries. They had nothing on this.* Apparently I was among a select few patients seen by this dentist for whom this had ever occurred. Lucky for you, there is almost no chance of this happening. I just thought I should provide a counterpoint, or at least a recommendation to make sure the person doing the procedure has a variety of anaesthetic options at their disposal.

[Almost as bad, though, was one of the dentist's off-hand comments at the height of the procedure (and my pleas): "This is just as hard on me as it is on you". I almost strangled him.]
posted by matlock expressway at 4:22 PM on May 3, 2012

On this topic, I've got a screwed up molar in the upper back that I am fairly certain is at least a root canal candidate, has anyone decided to just say 'screw it' and have the thing pulled instead? Pros and cons to that approach? Where this tooth is from a cosmetic standpoint nobody besides me (and my dentist) would ever know it was missing so I'm not worried about that aspect of it. I have just heard horror stories growing up from my parents getting their root canals worked on and recrowned over and over, etc.
posted by barc0001 at 4:25 PM on May 3, 2012

I had a molar pulled because my dentist told me it was too far gone to even try to do a crown on. I miss that tooth, chewing has never been the same since. Also, the teeth around it need to be very strong because they will take the brunt of chewing and no longer have the support of their neighbor. If you have a choice don't get a tooth pulled, trust me.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 4:44 PM on May 3, 2012

I have had one root canal, it was not a big deal (except for the part when I had to pay for it - expensive!!). My regular dentist did it, and I think he just used a local anesthetic - I was awake. It felt like a regular filling - it just took longer and cost more. If I need another one at some point (I hope I won't), I will have a specialist do it - I got lucky that my regular dentist did just fine. But, I'd use local anesthetic only again. I might ask for laughing gas or something so I'm not so tense and don't hurt my jaw keeping it tense and open, that was the hardest part!
posted by insectosaurus at 5:31 PM on May 3, 2012

Root canals are not bad at all. Disregard horror stories from the old days.

Nthing "go to an endodontist" and it's not worse than a regular filling except for jaw discomfort and length of time.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:32 PM on May 3, 2012

I am really hard to anesthetize (I woke up in the middle of my wisdom tooth extraction and apparently tried to punch out a nurse) so I was super nervous about my root canal. I didn't feel a thing. It was uncomfortable holding my mouth open for so long and my jaw was a bit sore for a few days afterward, but it was nothing that some Advil couldn't take the edge off.

Don't wait. Get it over with.
posted by elizeh at 7:21 PM on May 3, 2012

I had a root canal in February. I was in a lot of of pain from the infection, but the procedure itself was pretty much a non-event-- or rather two non-events, since it took two appointments. And I have huge fear-trauma around dental procedures and have been known to cry in the dentist's chair. The endodontist offered me valium but I decided forgo it in order to drive myself there. All I had was novocain and not too much of that, and it was fine.

I have to say that endodontist and his assistant had a wonderful line of patter going; basically they were arguing in a good-natured way about things like books and movies. It really helped the time pass. If he'd been a jerk it would have been a very long two days.
posted by BibiRose at 7:21 PM on May 3, 2012

I had my first root canal 2 years ago with just a local anesthetic at an endodontist. It was briefly really painful (the dentist gave me more painkiller right away though). Mostly it was just uncomfortable and tedious. Mine took 2 visits (3 counting the crown and post) and it was in the top back tooth so I felt like I was flipped half upside down. I also hated the xrays they did where they stuck this huge cage like thing in my mouth and I kept choking and spitting it out. It was definitely worse than any filling I've ever had done.

I know I made that sound terrible but I was glad it was done because I'd had a terrible toothache before hand and it has been fine ever since. And it wasn't as bad as I'd been imagining. Only really painful for a minute or so.

My only advice is when the dentist says to only get the pain reliever prescription filled if you need it you should get it filled anyway. I didn't get the drugs because it didn't hurt immediately afterwards. But then I woke up at 4 AM and felt like somebody had hit me in the head with a shovel and had no painkillers.
posted by interplanetjanet at 7:56 PM on May 3, 2012

My dentist was cranky at me - she said you shouldn't have a root canal until you are at least in your 40s. She is a crap dentist though. The root canal was a great relief (needing one hurts more than having one) but GET A FUCKING CROWN. The root canal is irrelevant when you need a crown.
posted by goo at 8:00 PM on May 3, 2012

I have had a root canal. It actually was not a big deal to get it done. I did not have any special pain killers and had moderate discomfort the next day, but nothing serious as far as pain. I almost wonder whether fillings are worse.

Unfortunately, the molar I had the root canal done on cracked recently and I am looking at an extraction. Because the molar was ground to the gum line, this will require a bloody mess to fix. I'm looking at an implant which will cost around $4,000. Not cool.

Please get your root canal done as soon as you can, you will risk weakening the tooth and end up in worse shape later.
posted by Jurbano at 10:32 PM on May 3, 2012

I had a root canal/gold crown done last year. It felt like grinding, but wasn't painful except briefly in between shots. There was a moment of "I can tell something is hot/burning rubber?" when they filled in my tooth root prior to the crown. I thought the impression/crown attachment was sort of cool from a sculptural point of view.

Really, the whole procedure was a major relief: I was in terrible pain for months beforehand, but once they got most of the way done, it stopped hurting. The infection was the really bad part-- the root canal was not really a big deal. It was not a pleasant process, but it was bearable. I only had a local, but my dentist was very good about taking care of me and refreshing the anesthetic the moment it started to wear off. Things that might help you:

1) Totally talk to your dentist about your anxiety. If you can get away with only a local, do so; there are risks with general anesthesia that you should try to avoid. Some dentists will let you wear earbuds so you can listen to music, and that helps some folks.

2) I actually fell asleep several times-- they propped my jaw open with this little wedge dealy, and it didn't hurt, I was up really early for the appointment, and my dentist didn't really need my input for I nodded off! If I can fall asleep during my root canal, you can get through yours just fine.

3) Take comfort in the fact that you're benefiting from many years of medical research-- the procedure is safe and will help you in the long run. Good for you for taking care of yourself!
posted by blnkfrnk at 12:05 AM on May 4, 2012

Like many of the previous posters I only had local anesthesia... lots of it though. If I remember correctly he went through 3 syringes and midway through the procedure he gave me more. My dentist is really into pain free dentistry--he even has a technique to minimize the pain in the actual injection.
The root canal itself seemed like getting a filling but 3 times longer with some heavy duty drilling. Like, skull rattling drilling. I imagined he was using a burr grinder as a drill bit. But, aside from the vibrations there was no pain or even anything I would consider discomfort.
I had a bite block so I didn't actually have to focus on keeping my mouth open. It was so long and uneventful on my side that I kept dozing off.

The biggest downside was that I was numb for hours and hours after the procedure because of all the injections.
A smaller, but more serious downside was that he hit or damaged a nerve doing the root canal (I didn't notice at the time) but it caused me to lose feeling/sensation in about a square centimeter of my lower lip. It took maybe 3 or 4 months until I could fully feel it again.
posted by simplethings at 2:12 AM on May 4, 2012

Wow guys, I never expected to get so many answers! Thanks so much, it looks like I'll be looking in to endodontists this weekend.
posted by rinosaur at 5:16 AM on May 4, 2012

Ask your dentist to refer you to an endodontist? (That's what mine did.) They will know who's good and, probably, who's in your insurance network.
posted by dlugoczaj at 2:21 PM on May 4, 2012

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