What is a root canal? And what to expect during the procedure and recovery?

Jack Lawrence

Written by Jack Lawrence DMD, Nichole McKenna DDS, Matthew Stewart DDS, Greg Grobmyer DDS, Peter Dégallier RDH, Namrita Harchandani DMD

Root canal treatment is a dental procedure that aims to remove contaminated material from the tooth. What’s more, it can help prevent the tooth from becoming infected in the future. It is often the last solution before an extraction.

Read the article below to find out whether you might need a root canal. You’ll also learn about the procedure, recovery, aftercare, and possible complications.

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Root canal procedure step-by-step

Root canal first treatment

Picture by Authority Dental under CC 2.0 license

Root canal treatment has a bad rep in the dental world. But it doesn’t have to be as scary as you think. Being aware of what each step entails can make the procedure more bearable.

There are a few things to remember about before your procedure:

  • Avoid alcohol and tobacco for at least 24 hours.
  • Eat before leaving for the office.
  • Take an OTC painkiller.
  • Make sure you are familiar with the process.

Alcohol and tobacco may have a bad effect on anesthesia your dentist will likely use to manage pain during the procedure. Taking a painkiller prior to your root canal treatment means less discomfort. This goes for both the procedure and application of the anesthetic.

Your body will take less of a hit if you have a full meal beforehand. Your anxiety will also be lower if you know what is going to happen each step of the way. Ask your dentist any questions you may have.

The tooth is opened up with a small drill. The dentist will then remove bacteria and infected matter with tiny instruments. Once he or she is satisfied that all contaminated materials are out, the tooth will be sealed.

Root canal pain and recovery

Root canals can hurt. Mild pain after a successful procedure is normal during recovery. You can manage it with OTC painkillers. This, however, should not last longer than 3 days. If you experience any bleeding, swelling, or pain for longer, contact your dentist, as you may have to return for a checkup.

Aftercare is mostly about good oral hygiene. Brush and floss at least twice a day. You can also use non-alcoholic mouthwash or a saltwater rinse. The latter can help bring down any swelling that appears on the gums around the affected tooth.

When is root canal retreatment needed?

Root canal retreatment

Picture by Authority Dental under CC 2.0 license

Jack Lawrence

Jack Lawrence, DMD

Retreatments are usually done by endodontist. If they are redone by a regular dentist the price is most often the same or a little higher than the initial procedure.

The procedure can be deemed unsuccessful if the infection was not eliminated completely. This means the bacteria continue to spread and attack the dental pulp. Such a situation is accompanied by erratic pain and swelling around the area for longer than 3 days.

Another reason for retreatment arises if the seal is incomplete or becomes worn. The canals should be closed off very thoroughly. Patients who suffer from bruxism are at particular risk of the filling coming loose. The infection then continues to spread. You may notice pain and swelling.

And lastly, it sometimes happens that cracks in the roots are not detected before the procedure. This is extremely rare, especially now, when radiographs such as CT scans are so accurate. Continuous pain and major swelling are symptoms to look for. The tooth will have to be opened up and the root canal will have to be redone.

Contact your dentist if you notice these signs, but he or she should be able to pick up on any problems during your post-op checkup.

Root canal near me


Some dental professionals, mainly holistic dentists, recommend against root canal treatment. Unfortunately, the only real alternative is extraction. If you do decide to pull your tooth, or if it is damaged beyond repair, you should always choose a restoration.

Not replacing extracted teeth leads to other dentition shifting, bone loss, loss of opposing teeth, as well as diet changes. These could all affect not only your oral but also general health. The most popular solutions are dental bridges, dentures, and implants.

Endodontists are experts on dental pulp issues. They focus on treating the inner part of the tooth.

A root canal procedure commonly takes about 30 minutes to an hour. If the tooth is badly infected or if there is an unexpected number of canals, it can last up to 90 minutes.

The best solution is to do whatever possible to save a tooth. Not only is an extraction itself expensive, but the tooth should also be replaced afterwards. This can turn out to be a lot more costly and you may need to think about relines or a long recovery period.

Root canal treatment is almost always done with no more than a local anesthetic. Those with high pain sensitivity or dental anxiety can discuss sedation options with their dentists.

First of all, that can be very painful. You are likely to experience swelling from the infection which may spread to other teeth. The longer you wait, the more costly the repair will be.


  1. Procedures for retreatment of failed root canal therapy - Cochrane
  2. Alcohol and anaesthesia - BJA
  3. The best radiographic method for determining root canal morphology in mandibular first premolars: A study of Chinese descendants in Taiwan - NCBI
  4. Dental Drill - ScienceDirect
  5. Are alcohol containing mouthwashes safe? - Nature
  6. Failure of endodontic treatment: The usual suspects - NCBI
  7. Procedures for retreatment of failed root canal therapy - Cochrane