Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Root Canal, or, Dental Doozies, Part I

I had a root canal - a dental procedure - over the summer. Have you ever had a root canal?

I was ... embarrassed ... to need a root canal. Why? Because for my entire life I've had perfect teeth. I never needed braces - my teeth are just straight. I had one cavity as a kid, which was filled, and had my wisdom teeth removed when I was 16 or so, and then every visit to the dentist since then has resulted in my dentist exclaiming "Wow, your teeth look great! Very little plaque! No cavities!" I get the occasional admonishment to floss more often, but really, who doesn't? In short, for nearly 30 years I've needed nothing more drastic than a dental cleaning.

So when my molar (#19, I've subsequently learned) began bothering me occasionally when I would eat or drink something too hot or too cold or too sweet, I chalked it up to my imagination, or age, or ... anything, really, other than a problem with my tooth.

Until the end of May, when I took a bite of pizza and experienced severe pain. Not as bad as childbirth, perhaps, but excruciating nonetheless. My eyes watered. I ran to the bathroom and swished water around in my mouth, hoping to wash away whatever awful thing was causing the pain... but the COLD WATER MADE IT WORSE!! Now I was nearly dizzy with pain. I had to sit, breathe deeply, focus on a spot on the wall -- you know, the whole Lamaze thing that, when I was having my kids, got me through labor until the anesthesiologist showed up with his magic epidural needle! But there was no anesthesiologist on the way, and that worried me greatly.

Especially since we had a vacation to California planned for the next week. A two and a half week vacation, complete with a trip to Knott's Berry Farm, a week at the beach, and a week of camping on Catalina Island. I considered skipping the trip and going to the dentist instead.

But the pain subsided within a minute or so, and it didn't come back for the next few days, so I decided it was all in my head, my tooth was fine, there was no problem, really... humans have a really amazing capacity for denial, don't you think?

And off to California we went. Had a great time. Perhaps I'll write about some of it later.

And the tooth was fine, mostly, so long as I didn't eat anything too hot or too cold or chew too hard on that side of my mouth or ... whatever... I found myself skipping the ice cream dessert because I just didn't want to take a chance, chewing on one side of my mouth, slowly and carefully... eating less (not a bad thing, really - I needed to lose a couple of pounds anyway, I told myself)... whatever it took to make sure I did not trigger that severe shooting, stabbing pain again.

Then, while camping, another awful shooting pain in my jaw.... ay yi yi, I thought the pain would never pass....! A few minutes later, it did. But after that, my tooth hurt pretty much constantly, a very low-level but constant pain, with occasional shooting pains if I tried to use the tooth. It was clear. There was something terribly wrong with my tooth. Ugh.

So when I got home, I made an appointment at the dentist, who saw me the next week, took a bunch of x-rays, said my tooth was infected and probably cracked, and sent me to the endodontist, who saw me a few days later. The antibiotics the dentist prescribed to control the infection also got rid of most of the pain, except for the occasional shooting, stabbing pain if I ate something too hot or too cold or chewed on something just the wrong way or... whatever. That didn't happen much, though, since I had pretty much learned to avoid eating if at all possible and to chew on the other side of my mouth if I had to eat.

The endodontist explained that my tooth was cracked, which allowed bacteria to get inside the tooth and eat away at the soft tissue within, destroying it. This is apparently what caused the pain. That, and the slight movement of the piece of tooth that was cracked. He recommended two alternatives: a root canal, or extract the tooth.

If the tooth is extracted, you then have two other options: a dental implant, or a bridge. For a dental implant, they insert a metal post into your jaw bone and attach a fake tooth to it. Ooh - sounds painful... For a bridge, they attach a fake tooth to the teeth immediately before and after it. Sounds less painful, but has the potential to essentially ruin two perfectly good teeth.

In a root canal, the endodontist drills through your tooth, scrapes out all the infected goo, and fills the tooth with some sort of soft substance, perhaps with antibacterial properties. Then you return to your dentist to have a crown placed over the tooth to hold it all together. (Apparently once the inside (infected) tissue is drilled out and the tooth dies, it becomes more brittle and needs protection, which is what the crown provides.)

Keeping the tooth and having it be normal again was, sadly, *not* one of the choices, and I didn't like any of the choices I had. But the root canal sounded the least objectionable, as I would not have to have metal installed in my jaw bone, nor ruin two perfectly good teeth to install a denture-like fake tooth between them.

The endodontist warned me, though, that my tooth was pretty severely and deeply cracked, and that the root canal procedure might not be successful. He said, however, that it would immediately cure the pain - well, right after the swelling from the procedure subsided, anyway. So I said "OK, let's do it," and had a root canal done right there and then.

Two and a half hours later, the root canal was done.

Two months later, it still had not fully healed. My dentist explained he could not install the crown until all the infection cleared up and the swelling subsided, so that the tooth would not be "floating" on top of fluid and/or swollen tissue, causing a misalignment of my bite. It has never fully cleared up.

In fact, it recently flared up again. The root is apparently dead on that tooth, so the pain wasn't nearly as bad as before. So, in my infinite capacity for denial, I ignored it as long as possible, claiming I was "too busy" to go to the dentist again. But it was uncomfortable. And then last week, my gum swelled up, and it began to actually hurt. So, back to the dentist I went. And the endodontist. And then the Oral Surgeon.

More antibiotics. More pain pills. And I may have to have the tooth extracted. And I'm thinking I should have just had it removed in the first place. Ugh. What a nightmare! Wish me luck...

Tomorrow I will tell you about my second visit to the endodontist. It was a real doozy.


Chaka said...

I had a root canal earier in the year and it was not fun, but nothing like yours. Sorry to hear about the pain. I hate going to the dentist, but I guess it beats having your teeth pulled everytime there is a problem.

Green said...

I have an outrageous fear of dentists and dental procedures. The word "phobia" doesn't even begin to encompass how much fear there is. So I am outrageously sorry for you; both for the pain you felt and the fear you must have had in having the pain taken away.

I'm sorry the first procedure didn't "take" and you have to go back tomorrow.

SkylersDad said...

here's a little something to help you out on your next visit!

Jan @ Struck by Serendipity said...

Dang! That sucks.

I'm off to floss my teeth... :)

Melly said...

I understand. Completely. I had jaw surgery that resulted in me having to have a root canal because the nerve going to one of my teeth didn't regenerate after the surgery so it died. I understand. I really do.

Silliyak said...

My first, much dreaded root canal, turned out to be a breeze. I have since had an implant on another tooth. While it was no pleasure, after the pain you've endured thus far, it may not seem so bad. Unfortunately it is a long procedure. Sorry you have to deal with this, but think about how much you're avoided by taking such good care of your teeth.

Scope said...

Zoinks! I can relate LINK

Cora said...

UGH. My step mom has been trying to get dental implants for years but they never take. The whole thing makes me shudder!

LOLA said...

I thought Knott's Berry Farm closed. We took our children there years ago and after going to Disneyland Knott's seemed dirty and no fun. We didn't stay long. Has it been cleaned up or did you arrive only to find that it is, in fact, as dead as your poor tooth?
Infinities of love,

LegalMist said...

Thanks to all for the pity party. Sometimes I just love a good pity party. haha.

Lola - actually, there is no other amusement park on earth that is as clean and perfect as Disneyland so, yes, Knott's was dirtier. But it wasn't awful or filthy or anything - comparable to Legoland or Six Flags, and much cleaner and safer-looking than the county fair. They have some pretty awesome coasters & water rides. Me - I can only take so much spinning & free-falling before I'm sick to my stomach, so I spent a lot of time holding everyone's water bottles while they rode the coasters. But it was ok with me. The weather was nice and the kids had fun. :)