A root canal is a dental procedure that gets rid of damage in your tooth’s roots while preserving your natural tooth.
Root canals become necessary when infection or inflammation develops in the soft tissue (pulp) inside and surrounding one of your teeth.
Damaged tissue is carefully removed and your tooth is sealed so that new bacteria can’t enter it. Root canals are extremely common, with more than 15 million taking place in the United States every year.
A root canal can take anywhere from 90 minutes to 3 hours. It can sometimes be done in one appointment but may require two.
A root canal may be done by your dentist or an endodontist. Endodontists have more specialized training for root canal treatment.
The time you’re in the dental chair for a root canal varies according to several factors, including the severity of your infection and the specific tooth. This article will cover the basics of what you can expect when you need a root canal.
Every tooth has pulp — living tissue inside the root that connects it to your bone and gums. The pulp is filled with blood vessels, nerves, and connective tissues. The following situations may result in compromised pulp and roots:
- teeth that are cracked or chipped
- teeth that have undergone repeated dental work
- teeth with an infection due to big cavities
A root canal is a routine dental treatment that can be performed to save your natural tooth while cleaning out damaged or diseased tissue.
The root “canal” refers to the canal of tissue inside your tooth that goes from the top to the root. It’s a myth that the root canal procedure involves drilling a canal down into your gum or creating a canal in your gums where one doesn’t exist.
Without a root canal, a severe tooth infection can spread along the gum line to your other teeth. Teeth can turn yellow or black, and dental infections can become serious and spread to other areas through your blood.
In most cases, the reasons for your root canal cause pain. While a root canal can be temporarily uncomfortable, this treatment is much better than the alternative side effects of severe infection.
The root canal procedure takes several steps, but all of them are pretty straightforward. At your appointment, here’s what to expect:
- The dentist will use a local anesthetic to numb the entire area where your tooth or teeth are being treated.
- They’ll use sterilized equipment to drill a small hole in your tooth. The insides of your tooth will then be slowly cleaned, removing damaged tissue or infection.
- The dentist will rinse the inside of your tooth several times. They may place medication inside your tooth to kill off remaining bacteria if there is an infection present.
- They’ll take X-rays to make sure the root is completely clean.
- If you’re returning to have the root canal completed or having a dental crown placed, the hole in your tooth will be filled with a temporary material. If your dentist finishes the root canal in one appointment, they may place a more permanent restoration.
During a follow-up, a crown may be placed to protect and seal your tooth permanently. Crowns can be important after a root canal, especially for back teeth used in chewing, because removing the pulp weakens the tooth.
A simple root canal procedure can take between 30 and 60 minutes if the tooth has one canal. But you should be prepared to spend about 90 minutes in the dentist’s chair for a root canal appointment.
A root canal takes significant time because your nerve needs to be carved out, rinsed, and disinfected. Some teeth have multiple pulp canals, while others have just one. Anesthesia, set-up, and preparation also take several minutes.
Molars, the four-cusped teeth at the back of your mouth, can have up to four canals, making them the most time consuming teeth for a root canal. Since the roots alone take an hour to remove, disinfect, and fill, a molar root canal may take 90 minutes or more.
Premolars, which are behind your anterior teeth but before your molars, only have one or two roots. Getting a root canal in a premolar may take around an hour or a bit more, depending on your tooth anatomy.
Canine and incisors
The teeth in the front of your mouth are called the incisors and canine teeth. These teeth help you tear and cut food as you chew.
They only have one root, which means that they’re faster to fill and treat during a root canal. Still, root canals with one of your front teeth can still take 45 minutes to an hour — and that doesn’t include getting a crown put in if you need one.
If your dentist is able to put a crown in at the same appointment as the root canal — which doesn’t happen often — you’ll need to add at least an additional hour to your estimated time.
This only happens if your dentist is able to make the crown in the same day in their office. Your dentist may recommend waiting a short time after the root canal to make sure the tooth has healed and it has no further complications before placing a permanent crown.
Root canal treatment may require two visits to your dentist depending on the tooth.
The first visit will focus on removing infected or damaged tissue in your tooth. This requires concentration and should be done with care. It can also be time consuming.
Your dentist will then place a temporary antibacterial medication in your tooth. After this first appointment, you should no longer feel tooth pain.
The second phase of treatment requires more cleaning and disinfecting, and permanently sealing the inside of your tooth with a rubber-like material. A permanent or temporary filling will then be placed, and sometimes a crown.
A root canal treatment generally causes some discomfort. However, it’s probably not as uncomfortable as you may think. It’s also not as painful as the alternative — a cracked tooth or a tooth infection.
People’s pain tolerance varies widely, so it’s difficult to predict how painful a root canal might be for you.
All root canals are done with an injected form of local anesthesia to numb your tooth, so you probably won’t feel much pain during the actual appointment. Your dentist should also be able to give you more local anesthesia if you still feel pain.
How long will pain last following a root canal?
A successful root canal treatment sometimes causes mild pain for several days after the treatment. This pain isn’t severe and should start to decrease as time goes by. In most cases, pain can be managed by over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen.
After your first root canal appointment, you may wait 1 to 2 weeks to have your crown placed and finish the treatment.
During that time, limit your diet to softer foods to avoid harming your tooth. You may want to rinse your mouth with lukewarm saltwater to keep food particles out of the unprotected tooth during this time.
Keep your teeth healthy by practicing good oral hygiene. Brush twice a day, floss once per day, cut down on sugary foods and drinks, and schedule regular cleanings with your dentist. Make sure you return to your dentist for the permanent crown if you need one.
A root canal is considered a serious treatment but for most people, it’s not more painful than a standard cavity filling procedure.
It’s also far less painful than letting a damaged tooth or infection continue to get worse.
The time your root canal will take will vary according to the severity of the damage to your tooth and the specific tooth that is impacted.
Remember that it’s better to be in the dentist’s chair than in the emergency room due to an unaddressed dental issue. If you’re concerned about how long a root canal might take, speak to a dentist so you both have a clear expectation of the length of your treatment.