How to Tell if You Need a Root Canal

Root canal procedures are a wonderful treatment option to resolve pain in infection in a troubled tooth. While you would certainly always have a dental evaluation before any treatment is performed, you should still watch out for signs that you may have a dental problem, and when you may benefit from seeking this care.  Our guide will help you identify how to tell if you need a root canal and how it is performed. 

We’re here to inform you about our endodontic procedures and how to maintain healthy teeth and optimal oral health. Find out if your symptoms indicate that you should make an appointment for an evaluation for a root canal treatment.

How to Tell if You Need a Root Canal Based on Your Symptoms

If you suspect you are having a problem with a tooth, it is helpful to know the common signs and symptoms that mean you may need root canal treatment.  Patients generally need root canal therapy because bacteria have found a way to enter the internal spaces inside your tooth’s root, which are called the root canals.  Most commonly, the bacteria enter through a deep cavity, around an old filling, or through a crack.   The bacteria then cause an infection of these internal parts of your tooth, leading to inflammation and pain.  Dental infections generally hurt, but for some teeth, the symptoms are mild and may even be absent or easy to overlook.    

Here are 5 common symptoms to be aware of:  

  1. Pain:  One of the most common ways to tell that you have a problem with one of your teeth is the presence of a “toothache”, experienced either as ongoing and unprovoked pain or as pain when doing normal activities like biting and chewing food.   If you are experiencing spontaneous pain or having difficulty eating without discomfort, you should consider seeing your dentist or endodontist.   
  2. Sensitivity to hot or cold:  One of the first symptoms to appear for teeth that are having root canal problems is the presence of sensitivity to cold.  This is usually experienced as a sharp pain when having cold drinks like ice water, cold foods like salads, or simply breathing cool air on a cold day.   Pain that lingers around even after the source of the cold is gone is particularly suggestive of a root canal problem.    Pain that develops after hot foods or hot drinks like coffee is also a common sign that you may need root canal treatment.   
  3. Discoloration:   A tooth that appears discolored may have changed color due to infection internally. Teeth don’t always change colors when they are infected, but a tooth that looks more gray, brown, or yellow than the neighboring teeth could have a root-canal problem that should be evaluated.   
  4. Cracked or broken teeth: Anything that can expose the tooth pulp to bacteria from the environment can lead to infection, and a crack in a tooth can be a pathway right to the nerve of the tooth.   Biting too forcefully into something hard like a popcorn kernel, hard candy, or a chicken bone can result in a fracture.  Teeth can also crack as a result of clenching or grinding your teeth.  Cracks are also often found around older fillings that are breaking down.  Many cracks can be restored before an infection develops, so early identification and conservative treatment are important.
  5. Swelling of the gums: Changes in the appearance of the gums around a tooth can be a sign of infection.   The gums may look red and swollen or the gums may have a persistent spot that resembles a pimple.

If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, it would be wise to seek dental care from your family dentist or from an endodontist to determine if you need root canal treatment or if there are other options that can help you. If your dentist identifies a root canal issue with your tooth, they might refer you to an endodontist for specialized care.  

Should You See Your Dentist or an Endodontist for a Root Canal?

If you think that your symptoms mean that you need a root canal, you should schedule a visit with your dentist or with an endodontist.  If you have a minor problem, like tooth sensitivity or a cavity, your dentist may be able to treat the issue without sending you to a specialist.   Not all dentists perform root canal procedures, but most dentists can help diagnose the problem and recommend appropriate treatment, which may include referral for specialized care.

Even if you see an endodontist, you should coordinate the procedure with your dentist, because after a root canal procedure is complete you often need to return to your dentist to complete the restoration (crown or filling) for your tooth.

Endodontists exclusively do root canal-related procedures and are therefore very experienced at diagnosing when you do or do not need root canal treatment. At Apex Endodontics, we take particular pride in helping many patients avoid root canal treatment with our careful diagnosis and precise care. If treatment is needed, endodontists are proficient and efficient at providing this care at the highest level.   Since most patients are seeing an endodontist because of pain, we have a particular focus on comfort.   

Endodontists do everything possible to ensure a pleasant experience and fast recovery after the treatment. In fact, root canal treatments are often quiet and even somewhat boring, so many patients fall asleep in our chairs.  Following a root canal, most patients can return to their regularly scheduled activities the same day, needing nothing more than ibuprofen and/or acetaminophen for mild postoperative discomfort.

What Happens During a Root Canal Treatment?

During root canal treatment, the endodontist will prepare the area and gently numb it with an injection. This injection will likely be the last feeling you have in the area until after it wears off in a few hours.

The doctor will need to clean out the bacteria, infected material, or inflamed tissue. We have a couple of high-tech options at Apex Endodontics to help this step of the process – GentleWave and Biolase (Waterlase).   Both technologies allow your endodontist to clean the tooth more completely, more conservatively, and more quickly than conventional measures.   Both are highly sophisticated technologies designed to generate complex sound energy and fluid dynamics that can better disinfect the complex and microscopic spaces within the tooth that can harbor bacteria.  

Once the tooth is thoroughly cleaned, the canals need to be sealed to prevent future infection. A filling will be placed to seal the canals. Many times, you will need to make an appointment with your dentist after the procedure to have a protective restoration like a crown placed over the tooth. The crown can help prevent bacteria from re-entering the tooth and it also decreases the chance of a crack developing in the tooth.

Consequences of Delaying Root Canal Therapy

Putting off a root canal can allow the infection to get worse and result in more pain, more swelling, and more difficulty with future treatment.  The spreading of the infection can lead to a situation where the tooth needs to be extracted.  Although very rare, in some situations the spreading of the tooth infection can lead to a systemic infection that could make you very sick.  Make sure to schedule your root canal therapy as soon as possible to avoid these consequences.

Have Your Dentist Refer You to Apex Endodontics

We are here to help you understand how to tell if you need a root canal. If you are experiencing signs and symptoms discussed here or suspect you may have a root canal infection, schedule a dental appointment. Contact your general dentist, or seek out an endodontist. If your dentist recommends a root canal, don’t wait.  You could experience even more pain or even lose your tooth if you wait too long. 

Contact our office at Apex Endodontics to set up an appointment. You can also use the online form to ask us questions about our doctors, office, technology, and root canal therapy.