Root Canal Defamation
“I’d rather get a root canal than go to the Opera or Theater again.”---Bob Davis Sr. Growing up it seemed root canals were always analogized with the worst possible things in life. I had no clue what a root canal was, but I learned it must be a pretty painful and awful procedure. I was wrong.
This edition of Mental Floss is being prepared while sitting with my beautiful wife and brilliant oldest daughter on a Southwest flight waiting for the lightening to subside so we can take off for Los Angeles. This weekend I am attending the first of three, four day sessions of training at the UCLA Dental Esthetic Continuum. The title “Root Canal Defamation” is a tribute to the law I’ve crammed into my brain for what turned out to be a relatively unpleasant experience taking the bar exam in Columbia, MO the past two days. That experience is for another day, another blog. This is about endodontics, or the field of root canals.
Some of the legal facts still remain stuck in my brain cells though so let’s talk about the defamation of root canals. Without getting too detailed and losing the two readers of this blog I do have, defamation in a nutshell involves a statement published to a third party which causes damage to another’s reputation. So if we pretend root canals are people, they likely do have an actionable claim for defamation.
Why do root canals have a bad reputation? Many years ago before dentists commonly used local anesthetics I can imagine root canals were an incredibly painful procedure. Why? To answer the question of why root canals were so painful in the absence of local anesthetics we need to know what exactly a root canal is.
Literally a root canal is both a noun and a verb, both an anatomical structure and a procedure. Inside the tooth is a hollow area consisting of a canal and a pulp chamber. Within this hollow space are the tooth’s blood and nerve, the “lifeblood” of the tooth. When the tooth becomes infected, the nerve can create severe pain which in many instances can only be completely cured by removing the nerve.
The procedure we commonly know as a root canal is poorly named for several reasons. First, the procedure only describes the anatomical structure involved, not what is done with that structure. Typically in medicine, the given name of a procedure is a combination of the anatomical structure involved, as well as some description of what is done to it. For example, a coronary bypass is a rerouting (bypassing) of blood flow around the coronary arteries, which are usually blocked. Second, even if a procedure is going to be named solely based on the anatomical structure involved, then a root canal should be called a root canal & pulp chamber, because the nerve requiring removal is located in both the canal and pulp chamber.
Nerves come in two main forms, sensory nerves (sense stimuli) and motor nerves (order movement). Because the primary purpose of a sensory nerve is to interpret stimuli such as pain, one can only imagine how painful it would be to remove a tooth nerve. This is why root canals have a reputation of being painful, because years ago before dentists used local anesthetics, the procedure certainly hurt like hell. Nowadays it is just another procedure that when numb, is no more painful than a routine filing.
While this article is silly, the point is no patient should ever be worried about a root canal because of the anticipated pain involved in the procedure. In general, the only pain from a root canal is suffered by one’s bank account or credit card. It's not bad at all, I promise.