How to Tell If You Are Experiencing Root Canal Symptoms

Every day, dentists perform over 41,000 root canals. That means more than 15 million root canals take place every year!

Despite being a very common procedure, most people are unfamiliar with the symptoms that indicate a root canal is necessary. Because they don’t know what they should be looking for, they’re often taken aback when their dentist informs them that they need a root canal. Read on to learn about common root canal symptoms and how to proceed when you start noticing them.

What is a Root Canal?

A root canal is a type of treatment that dentists use to repair and save an infected or badly decaying tooth. The treatment involves the removal of the nerve and nerve tissue (pulp) from the affected tooth. The tooth is also cleaned and sealed to prevent future infections or abscesses.

The term “root canal” also refers to the cavity inside of the tooth. The cavity contains soft tissue, known as pulp, along with the tooth’s nerve.

Root canal procedures help prevent more serious future complications. If an infection or abscess is left untreated, it can lead to severe swelling, bone loss, and drainage problems.

Reasons a Root Canal is Needed

When the nerve and pulp of a tooth become irritated, inflamed, and/or infected, one of the following situations is usually the cause:

  • Deep tooth decay
  • Repeat dental procedures on the same tooth
  • Large fillings
  • Cracks or chips

Trauma to the face can also cause irritation and trigger the need for a root canal.

Common Root Canal Symptoms

How do you know if you need a root canal? A dentist is the only one who can tell you for sure. But, if you notice any of the following symptoms, there’s a good chance that you’ll need one:

A Severe Toothache

If you notice a constant ache that comes on without any provocation, pulp or nerve damage is likely to blame.

Swelling or Tenderness

If you notice painful swelling in your gums, an infection may be leaking from inside of one of your teeth. This can lead to pain, infection, and inflammation in the gum tissue.

Pain While Chewing or Biting

If your tooth is cracked, it’s easy for bacteria to get inside of it. This, in turn, can lead to pain when chewing or biting down. An abscess (a pocket of pus that forms around an infection) can also cause bone tenderness and painful chewing.

Tooth Discoloration

If your tooth looks grey or black in color, this is a surefire sign of an infection.

Hot and Cold Sensitivity

Do hot and/or cold foods trigger severe pain? When your tooth is infected and a root canal is needed, the nerves become hypersensitive to temperature changes.

It’s especially likely that you need a root canal if your sensitivity lingers long after you’ve come in contact with a hot or cold food or beverage. This is because the nerve tissue is no longer functioning normally.

What to Do if You Notice These Symptoms

If you notice any of these symptoms, you should first make an appointment with your dentist. If you explain your symptoms to a receptionist or other staff member, they’ll likely make arrangements for you to come in as soon as possible — maybe even that same day.

While you wait for your appointment, you can relieve pain and swelling by applying an ice pack to the outside of your jaw.

Meeting with the Dentist

When you arrive for your appointment, the dentist will take a look at the affected tooth and take some x-rays to determine whether or not you need a root canal.

If you need a root canal, your dentist may refer you to an endodontist. An endodontist specializes in internal tooth issues, including nerve damage.

Sometimes, your dentist can perform the root canal themselves as well. It depends on the severity of the nerve damage and the dentist’s personal comfort level.

What to Expect from a Root Canal

If your dentist decides that a root canal is the best course of action, it’s natural to feel some anxiety. This is especially common with root canals. After all, you’ve probably heard your whole life that there’s nothing more painful than them.

One way to manage dental anxiety is to learn more about the procedure you’re about to undergo. That way, you’ll be better prepared and will have a better understanding of what the dentist or endodontist is doing.

The First Procedure

When you first arrive for your appointment, the dentist will take more x-rays to see the root canal’s shape and determine whether or not there are signs of infection in the surrounding bone.

Then, they’ll use a local anesthetic to numb the gum and area surrounding your tooth.

After the area is numb, the dentist will place a sheet of rubber around your tooth to keep it dry while they work.

Next, they drill an access hole. They’ll use this hole, along with a tool known as a root canal file, to remove the pulp, decayed nerve tissue, bacteria, and debris. As they clean the area, they’ll also flush the area with sodium hypochlorite or water.

Sealing the Tooth

When the tooth is totally clean, the dentist will seal it. Some dentists like to wait about a week before permanently sealing the tooth. This is especially common if there’s an infection.

If your dentist decides to wait, they’ll place a temporary filling in the access hole to keep contaminants out.

When they permanently seal the tooth, the dentist uses a sealer paste and a compound known as gutta-percha. They’ll then use a regular filling to cover the access hole.


Finally, the dentist may also do some additional work to restore the tooth. If the tooth is cracked or damaged, they’ll make the repairs necessary to prevent future infections. Common restorative techniques include crowns and posts.

Root Canal Recovery

If you’re like most patients, you’re probably wondering how much pain you’ll be in after the root canal procedure. While everyone handles the procedure differently, most people experience sensitivity and pain for a few days afterward. This is especially likely if your tooth was infected.

Most people can control their pain with the help of over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen and naproxen. Sometimes, though, your dentist will prescribe stronger medications.

Typically, you can return to your normal activities within a day or two. If your job requires a lot of talking, though, you may need to take a little extra time.

You don’t need to do anything else special while you recover. Just continue practicing good oral hygiene (brushing, flossing, etc.) and see your dentist at regular intervals to maintain good health and prevent the need for future root canals.

Do You Need a Root Canal?

Are you experiencing any of these common root canal symptoms? If so, you need to meet with your dentist right way.

If you live in the Birmingham area, contact us at Doug Lewis Dentistry today to schedule an appointment.

Feeling nervous about your appointment? Take an online office tour before the big day to calm your nerves.