What A Root Canal Taught Me

Like millions of others of my fellow Americans, I hate the dentist. My perfectly reasonable fear of people poking around my oral cavity with sharp utensils began at about age 7. I was attending my first dental appointment (that I can remember), relaxed from the generic new-age music playing in the lobby. When I was finally in the chair, my dentist, a middle-aged man with greying hair, leaned my seat back and began lightly jabbing my gums and teeth. He told me to open my mouth wider, and I yelled for help. The dentist and his assistant laughed at my attempts.

Dentists’ offices fill me with a vague sense of panic that I link to my first experience visiting one. I feel like they always tell you the same thing: Floss once a day, brush twice a day, eat less candy, worship Satan. You know, normal dentist stuff. I went twice a year because my parents made me. But the second I had to start making my own appointments, I never saw a dentist again. That is, until this year, when a small but unyielding pain flared in my upper jaw. Having never experienced one before, I wasn’t quite sure it was a toothache, but Google assured me that’s exactly what it was. It woke me up in the middle of the night, but it went away as soon as I took some Tylenol. Reluctantly, I called the dentist to make an appointment… for a month later.

I went to go see the dentist and he told me I might need a filling, or I might even need a root canal. They cleaned my teeth, and I made another appointment for the next month, preparing myself for a new filling. Then, two days before my appointment, my tooth pain flared again. Only, it didn’t go away as easily as last time. I took four Tylenol, rinsed my mouth with warm salt water, gargled mouth wash, brushed my teeth (a mistake, actually, since my tooth was overly sensitive to cold), and finally resorted to just chewing on a pen cap. The pain felt less like a pain and more like an itch. I bought some Orajel, which contains 20% Benzocaine and 80% magic. I was worried about cavities and fillings. What I needed was a root canal.

Essentially, a root canal is required when a cavity gets too deep. That was my problem: some food had lodged itself behind this particular tooth and the acid had eaten away at my enamel for who knows how long until some of the tooth’s root was actually exposed, which is what caused the pain. The dentist didn’t even sound very sorry about my needing one. He offered to do it then and there, but I was not mentally prepared for a root canal or getting a crown. I left that day, saying that I would make an appointment for later that month. In retrospect, I wish I had just gone through with it there. It would’ve been much cheaper because of reasons that my insurance gave me (he was my primary care dentist and not a specialist, a distinction I would not think important until later). I wish I had done it then because later that month, the dentist at the community health center fucking left. And they never found anyone to replace him that could also do root canals.

So I embarked on a dental journey. It involved traversing the dangerous seas of dental insurance and choosing a different primary dentist on an almost weekly basis. I wanted a second opinion, though that didn’t help me. I paid a different dentist to tell me the same thing as my other one. Then I learned a new word: endodontist. Endodontists are minions of the Dark Lord who perform root canal “therapy.” For the affordable price of your first-born child, they will relieve you of the pain. My tooth didn’t actually hurt during this period, but it had a kind of presence. Almost like it wanted to hurt. I stopped eating sugar and stuck to soft foods. And I was miserable. I researched the cost of a root canal and I cried about it. As it turns out, none of the endodontists in my city are in my insurance’s network. Because I had to search over 100 miles for an in-network endodontist, I had the “freedom” to choose my own. Oh, joy.

After a lot of phone calls and more crying about pricing, I finally found a Houston endodontist who would let me split the cost between two months. This particular office looked like something out of Nip/Tuck, with all white marble floors and silver chrome edges. I did not feel vaguely panicked but merely unhappy. I did not want to be there. I got to my appointment about forty minutes early. For some inexplicable (but also fitting) reason, the television in the lobby was set to Food Network. I met the endodontist and he took an X-ray of my tooth. He even showed me where the decay was. “Look! It’s right there.” Like I was going to win a prize at the county fair. He leaned me back, stuck three vials of numbing solution around my tooth, and went to work.

The worst part was, there was no worst part. I thought my feelings of animosity towards oral care professionals would finally be vindicated, but it was painless. There was one point where I felt a jab of pain, but then the endodontist stuck another syringe into my mouth and it was smooth sailing from there. I guess the noise was bad. I think if anyone ever invents a silent drill, people won’t be so afraid of the dentist. The actual process of a root canal is straightforward: an endodontist drills away the decay and tooth pulp in order to clear the canals in a tooth’s root (its little “legs” that anchor into the gums). Then he seals the tooth in order to prevent any thing else from getting inside. Fifteen minutes later, I paid the receptionist what I might’ve spent on a gaming system, and drove back home. I could only move half my face, but my tooth was no longer a presence. I realized as I was driving home that I had been afraid of my tooth for the past three months (the length of my dental journey) and that I wasn’t afraid of it anymore.

Here are some pearls of wisdom I’ve gained:

  • Floss twice a day. If you only do it once a day, make it in the evening.

  • Floss EVERY DAY. As I kid, I thought this was optional, but it’s really not. You might be surprised at what you find hiding between your teeth.

  • Consider buying a vibrating toothbrush. I use a Philips Essence now, which seems to be perpetually on sale at Walgreens. It helps loosen any plaque or buildup on your teeth.

  • Floss before you brush.

  • Don’t waste money on mouthwash unless a dentist specifically tells you to; regular Listerine or even just warm salt water is enough.

  • Don’t be afraid to use your teeth. A dentist would be perfectly content with telling you to start an all-liquid diet in order to avoid chewing. Your teeth have one primary function, and it isn’t to look pretty. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your best to take care of them.


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