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Health Team

Root canals are less painful than in the past

Posted April 5, 2012 5:14 p.m. EDT
Updated April 5, 2012 7:57 p.m. EDT

— A root canal can save a tooth, and these days, it's not even the painful experience some people fear.

Gloria Wynn chose to have a root canal rather than lose a tooth, but she was still nervous about the procedure.

"I was just astounded that it was so easy. You just have to be still and in a certain position for a long period of time," Gwyn said.

Root canals are necessary when bacteria and the acid it leaves behind eats beyond the hard enamel layer of the tooth.

"The process continues in the tooth until it gets to the pulp where the nerves and blood vessels are located," said Dr. Eric Rivera, chairman of the Department of Endodontics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Dentistry.

Symptoms to look for include pain, prolonged sensitivity to heat or cold, tenderness to touch and chewing, and a discolored tooth. Regular dental exams often spot problems before symptoms occur.

Many people ignore tooth problems out of fear of root canals, but Rivera says that those fears are unfounded.

"It's usually not painful, and you get to maintain your own natural tooth," he said.

General dentists can perform 79 percent of root canals, but more difficult cases are referred to specialists called endodonist, who usually gives the tooth a filling or a crown. These methods also preserve a natural tooth and prevent an extraction requiring a partial or, eventually, dentures.

Regularly brushing and flossing your teeth and getting regular dental checkups can prevent the more serious problems that led to root canals and tooth extractions.

Patients can sometimes need more than one root canal.

"Bacteria can recontaminate the canal space, requiring a root canal to be redone or even possibly have the tooth extracted," Rivera said.

Gwyn needed a second root canal on one tooth, but she wasn't anxious at all about it.

"For me, it's like coming in for a cleaning," she said.