Debunking the Root Canal: Three Common Patient Questions Answered

Joseph Stern, D.D.S., Clinical Assistant Professor of Dental Medicine

May 11, 2021
Dr. Joseph Stern

While you personally may have never had a root canal treatment or even know what the procedure specifically entails, just hearing the term itself may evoke a feeling of apprehension for some. It is safe to say that the idea of the root canal – also referred to as endodontic treatment – in the minds of the general public has a spotty reputation, but what most people do not know is that the most common fears associated with root canals are entirely unfounded! As noted in an article published by Colgate-Palmolive, a highly flawed – and since discredited – study published in the 1920s is to blame and, as an unfortunate result, a number of misconceptions and myths surrounding root canals continue to persist.

If your dentist or endodontist has suggested that you may require root canal treatment, there is nothing to fear! In this article, Joseph Stern, D.D.S., Clinical Assistant Professor and Director of Endodontics at the Touro College of Dental Medicine (TCDM) will put your mind at ease by demystifying endodontic treatment, addressing three common questions patients have about the tooth-saving procedure.

How Do I Know if I Need Root Canal Treatment?

If you are experiencing severe pain while chewing, have swollen gums or perhaps notice that your teeth are incredibly sensitive to hot and or cold temperatures, it is possible that you may need root canal treatment. According to the American Association of Endodontists, if a patient has a cracked tooth, deep cavity or issues resulting from a previous filling, it is possible for the inside, or pulp, of the tooth to become severely inflamed or infected, which can cause a tooth abscess. When left untreated, this can result in the loss of the damaged tooth, but this can ultimately be avoided with endodontic treatment. “Many people mistakenly think that root canal means ‘removing the root’. This could not be further from the truth. Rather, a root canal simply means removing the inflamed or infected nerve from inside the root,” says Dr. Stern, who is a diplomate of the American Board of Endodontics. “Another common cause of root canals is also dental trauma. This can be tricky because a tooth that undergoes trauma might become infected without causing any pain at all.”

Are Root Canals Actually Painful?

While patients may not look forward to undergoing root canal treatment, there is absolutely no aspect of the procedure that should cause pain. It is root canal infections that cause pain while the root canal procedure itself aims to relieve that pain! Also, most root canal treatments require the use of a local anesthesia to numb the tooth being treated, which works to effectively ward off pain and discomfort during the procedure. “I always tell patients, once you are numb there is no difference between a root canal and a general cavity filling,” says Dr. Stern.

With the additional use of cutting-edge advancements in digital dentistry, including CBCT scanners – special 3D x-rays that allow dentists to evaluate bone structure, as well as nerves and pathways inside the tooth – and high-powered microscopes, dentists are able to make an accurate diagnosis and develop an effective treatment plan, ensuring that patients receive the precise treatment they need and are successfully relieved of their pain. “The root canal is a very small space and utilizing state-of-the-art technologies aid significantly in terms of visualization and diagnostics,” adds Dr. Stern. “For example, if the tooth has a minute crack that runs deep into the root canal, a microscope will pick that up whereas the naked eye might not.”   

What Can I Expect When Getting a Root Canal Treatment?

Though some cases may vary in complexity, all patients can expect the same key aspects from the root canal procedure. After anesthesia is administered, the affected tooth is isolated from the rest of the mouth using a protective sheet, or “dental dam.” The dentist then gains access to the affected tissue inside of the tooth, and, upon cleaning and shaping the space using very small and precise instruments, the area is filled with special antibacterial medication which is replaced with a root filling to permanently seal the tooth against future reinfection. Finally, the tooth is made whole in a follow-up visit with the placement of a permanent crown. “We always advise our patients to avoid chewing on the tooth for a couple of days to allow the tooth some time to settle down,” says Dr. Stern. “Once the root canal is completed and the permanent crown is placed the tooth should return to normal function.”


At Touro Dental Health, our student dentists and faculty endodontists pride themselves on providing compassionate and effective care. If you require endodontic treatment, contact us at 914-594-2700.