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Root Canal Recommended? What Alternatives Do You Have?

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If your dentist has recommended that you have a root canal performed on one or more teeth, you may be looking for a second opinion. Although recent advances in technology have made the root canal procedure much less painful and time-consuming than it has been in years past, having a root canal is still not a way most would choose to spend their time. Read on to learn more about some root canal alternatives, as well as situations in which a root canal may be your best (or only) option. 

What are your root canal alternatives?

One popular recent alternative to a root canal is the "pulp capping" of the affected tooth. This is an option often utilized when the root of the tooth is inflamed or infected (but still living), and it can potentially heal any infection while also allowing you to keep your tooth. 

When your tooth is pulp capped, the dentist will carefully drill into your tooth to access the exposed nerve (only after thoroughly numbing you first). The area is cleaned and a special antibacterial gel is applied to the exposed pulp to ward off infection. The area above the pulp and root is then "capped" with an amalgam or polymer filling. As time goes on, your tooth will regenerate dentin around the cap, and your root and pulp will return to full health.

Some advantages of the pulp capping procedure are its lower cost (since you'll need only a small filling, rather than a crown) and shorter procedure time. When you have a root canal, you'll likely need to make at least two dental visits -- one for the canal itself and one for the application of the crown. Pulp capping, on the other hand, can be completed in one relatively short dental visit. 

Another option is the removal and replacement of the tooth. If the affected tooth is a molar and you've not yet had your wisdom teeth removed, having the molar removed and then allowing the wisdom tooth to grow in and replace it may be a viable alternative to simply performing a root canal and crowning the original tooth. 

Root canals on molars can be complex and may require the removal of both roots (even if only one is affected), which is why extraction may sometimes be an equally good choice. However, extraction is generally not seen as a beneficial alternative to a root canal for a central tooth, as it can cause your remaining teeth to shift and make it difficult to chew.

When should you seek a root canal instead? 

In some cases, these alternatives may simply be a way to delay the inevitable. If the root of your tooth has become inflamed and infected with bacteria, attempts to remove the bacteria while retaining the root may be unsuccessful. Because infected roots -- if left untreated -- can cause serious issues, from a bone infection in your jaw to even endocarditis, it's in your best interest to have a root canal performed as quickly as possible.

Similarly, if the root of your tooth is already dead, pulp capping won't help. Eventually your tooth's dead root will begin to pull away from your gums, causing the tooth to fall out. At this point, your only options will be a dental bridge or implant, both of which are much more expensive, painful, and time-consuming than a root canal. 

If you do need a root canal, there's no need to fret or worry about pain -- in fact, the American Association of Endodontists (AAE) has found that those who have never undergone a root canal procedure before are six times less likely to describe the procedure as "pain-free" than those who have actually had a root canal. This shows that many of the popular misconceptions and fears about having a root canal performed are mired in pop culture, rather than stemming from actual experience.