What is a Root Canal?

A root canal is a dental procedure in which the soft center of the tooth, the pulp, is removed. The pulp is a collection of nerves, blood vessels, and connective tissue that aid the tooth’s growth.

A person will need a root canal if the pulp is inflamed or infected, commonly called pulpitis. The procedure eliminates bacteria and can save the natural tooth by preventing reinfection. Unlike other parts of your body, a tooth’s pulp cannot heal on its own. Once it has been damaged or infected, the only option is to remove it, either with a root canal or a whole tooth extraction. 

A tooth’s pulp can be damaged in a number of ways. The most common are decay from an untreated cavity, a chipped or cracked tooth, or too many dental procedures on the same tooth. The pulp can also be damaged by a tooth injury that does not break the tooth.

You may need a root canal if you have severe pain while chewing or biting, gum pimples, intense sensitivity to hot or cold, or gum problems such as swollenness, tenderness, decaying, or darkening.

Performing a Root Canal

A root canal can be performed on a person of any age who has experienced damage to a tooth’s pulp. General dentists (non-dental specialists) can perform root canals on any tooth, but they commonly refer patients to an endodontist if the procedure is needed on a more complex tooth, such as a molar. An endodontist is a specialist who has completed two or more additional years of training after dental school. Part of their additional training focuses on root canals.

A root canal can be completed in one or two appointments and is a rather painless procedure. It begins with an anesthetic to numb the tooth, with the patient remaining awake. The pulp is then removed through a small opening in the top of the tooth.

After the pulp has been removed, the dentist may use a topical antibiotic on the tooth to prevent reinfection. The dentist then fills the tooth with a sealer paste and gutta-percha, a rubber-like material. The procedure is ended by the dentist filling the opening with a temporary sealant.

The temporary sealant will need to be replaced with a permanent restoration, typically a crown, after a root canal. Your dentist will likely schedule the restoration a week or more after the root canal. The extra time helps to make sure that if any problems with the root canal arise, they can be identified and fixed before the restoration is in place. 

Your mouth will usually be numb for around 2-4 hours following a root canal procedure, but you should be able to return to normal activities such as school or work directly afterward. However, if you have a root canal, you should not eat again until the numbness has completely gone away. You also may experience soreness and mild discomfort for a couple of days.

Cost of a Root Canal

Root canal pricing will vary by geographic region, the complexity of the root canal procedure to be performed, as well as other factors. Since molar root canals are more challenging and often performed by an endodontist, the fee is typically higher.

Without insurance, a front tooth root canal can cost an average of $600-$1,100, while a molar ranges from $800-$1,500. With insurance, the price for a front tooth procedure can go down to just $200 and a molar procedure at least $300. Click here for more information about dental insurance.

The price can also differ depending on where you live, as there is a higher demand and less access for dentists in smaller cities and towns.

Preventing Root Canals

As with most oral disease, dental issues that can lead to a root canal are almost entirely preventable. Good oral hygiene and regular preventive dental visits are two important steps to reduce the chance of needing a root canal. 

Beyond tooth decay, however, oral trauma can also lead to the need for root canals. For anyone playing contact sports or other activities that risk a blow to the face, consider wearing a mouth guard to protect your teeth. 

Where Do I Get a Root Canal?

If you have a dentist and think you may need a root canal, your regular provider should be your first stop. If you don’t have a dentist or can’t afford to see one, there are many options across North Carolina for free or reduced-cost care. 

You can find access points that accept Medicaid insurance and offer care on sliding fee scales for those without insurance by visiting NCOHC’s access map. Not all clinics on the map provide surgical procedures like root canals, but most should be able to diagnose the problem, discuss different treatment options, and point you in the right direction to receive the care you need. 

About the author: Sydney Patterson is a senior at East Carolina University studying public health. She plans to attend dental school following graduation. Sydney is from Hayesville, North Carolina, and she works as a dental assistant at Staton Family Dentistry.

NCOHC, a program of the Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation, works to advance systems-level changes, improving the overall health and well-being of all North Carolinians by increasing access and equity in care. To stay up-to-date and get involved, join us today as a North Carolinian for Change.


Sneak Peek: Oral Health Day 2022: Equity in Action

Oral Health Day will look different this year. As the first two-day Oral Health Day event, you can expect new and exciting opportunities to engage with experts and also play a role in shaping the future of oral health in North Carolina.

Click here to register today and join us on June 22 and 23!

We are thrilled to announce that Dr. Eleanor Fleming will headline Oral Health Day 2022 as the keynote speaker. As the assistant dean of equity, diversity, and inclusion at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, she is the perfect person to keynote this year’s event, themed “Equity in Action.”

Keynote: Dr. Eleanor Fleming

Fleming earned her PhD at Vanderbilt University, DDS at Meharry Medical College, and MPH at East Tennessee State University. She also completed a Dental Public Health Residency at Boston University. She has worked in a variety of positions, including as Dental Officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Associate Professor of Dental Public Health at the Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry.

Fleming is a subject matter expert in infectious disease and chronic disease epidemiology. She has been a principal investigator in numerous studies and has informed public health surveillance at state, national, and international levels. Fleming holds leadership positions in the American Association of Public Health Dentistry and the American Public Health Association.

Among numerous accolades, she has been recognized as one of the American Dental Association’s (ADA) “10 under 10” (2021), recognizing leaders in the dental field who are less than 10 years out of dental school. She has also received the National Dental Association New Dentists Colgate Leadership Award (2020), the ADA Foundation Henry Schein Cares Dr. David Whitson Leadership Award (2018), and the Ernest Eugene Buell Award (2016).

Equity in Action

NCOHC believes that health care is an inherent right for all. In North Carolina, there are severe disparities in oral health care access and outcomes, often driven by social drivers of health such as financial difficulties and inadequate access to transportation.

Oral Health Day 2022: Equity in Action will focus on the structural changes we need in order to create a future where all have access to the care they deserve.

Click here to register today and join us on June 22 and 23!

Along with Fleming’s keynote on June 22nd, Dr. Lewis Lampiris will moderate a panel of leaders in health care to discuss equity issues and policy solutions. Head over to the Oral Health Day 2022: Equity in Action page to meet this year’s panelists.

Lampiris received his DDS from Temple University’s Kornberg School of Dental Medicine and MPH from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Early in his career, Dr. Lampiris served as a dental officer in the U.S. Army Dental Corps.

Later, he worked in private practice in Chicago before serving as chief of the Illinois Department of Public Health, Division of Oral Health for nine years. Immediately after, he served as the Director of the ADA’s Council on Access, Prevention, and Interprofessional Relations.

Lampiris recently retired from the University of North Carolina Adams School of Dentistry where he served as Associate Clinical Professor and the Director of the Dentistry in Service to Community (DISC) program. He is the recipient of the American Association of Public Health Dentistry’s Distinguished Service Award (2013), the ADA’s Presidential Citation (2010), and the Association of State and Territorial Dental Directors Distinguished Service Award (2007).

Hands-On Workshop

On June 23rd (Day 2), all participants are invited to join NCOHC for a thought-provoking and interactive workshop. In this unique session, we will work together to identify actionable solutions to increase access and equity in oral health care in North Carolina and beyond.

As a collaborative organization, we believe it is vital to hand the microphone over to you. Sustainable solutions to our biggest challenges can only be found — and achieved — when we work together. We fully expect Oral Health Day 2022: Equity in Action to be a catalyst for system-wide change!

Click here to register today and join us on June 22 and 23!

2022 NCOHC Oral Health Equity Award

We are also thrilled to announce the 2022 NCOHC Oral Health Equity Award. On Day 1 (June 22nd) of Oral Health Day, NCOHC will present this signature award to an organization that has implemented solutions reducing disparities and improved oral health outcomes in North Carolina. To find out more about the award, please click here.

We look forward to seeing you at Oral Health Day 2022: Equity in Action on June 22 and June 23!