Few phrases strike such immediate fear in the hearts of those who hear it as the phrase "root canal." But while many people may not know exactly what a root canal is, they know enough to know they don’t want one. In honor of Root Canal Awareness Week (which runs March 30- April 5) we asked Dr. Stephen Hill of Allen, Texas to tell us exactly what a root canal is- and let us know if it’s really as scary as it sounds!

So, what is a root canal? A root canal is a procedure done to repair a damaged or infected tooth.  It is sometimes performed by a dentist, but it is most frequently performed by a dental specialist called an endodontist, whose sole focus is on preserving natural teeth by replacing the soft tissue or ‘pulp’ of the inner tooth. The name endodontist comes from the Greek words "endo," which means inside, and "odont" which means tooth.

Though they can be conducted in one visit, most root canals span two appointments. During the first part of the root canal procedure, the dentist or endodontist removes the infected pulp of the tooth, cleaning and disinfecting the inside of tooth itself. On the second visit, the infected pulp is replaced with a synthetic material called "gutta-percha." Once the gutta- percha is inside the tooth, the tooth is then re-sealed, and the procedure is complete. The total time for each portion of the procedure ranges anywhere from 20-50 minutes for the first visit, to 40-100 minutes for the second visit.

"The length of time greatly depends on how badly the tooth is infected, how many canals your tooth needs, and how many teeth need root canals," Hill said. 

Root canals have about a 90 percentage success rate, with most patients able to retain their natural tooth for the rest of their lives.Still scared? 

"It’s really not that bad," Hill said. "Today’s root canals are a lot less painful than procedures were in the past." 

In fact, many patients liken the pain to that of a standard filling. The procedure is done under local anesthesia, and the healing process is relatively easy as well, with most patients only needing over the counter pain medication for a few days prior to the procedure. 

"The pain associated with root canals is mostly due to the infection prior to the procedure," Hill said. "Once we’ve cleared out the infected pulp, the tooth should feel fine in a few days, though it may take a few weeks to get used to the feeling of the gutta-percha in your tooth instead of the natural pulp."