The only way to know for sure if you need a root canal is by paying a visit to your dentist. But there are several warning signs to be on the lookout for. If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s important to see your dentist as soon as possible. The sooner your tooth can be treated, the better the outcome will likely be.
1. Persistent pain
Persistent tooth pain is one of the signs that you may need a root canal. The pain in your tooth might bother you all the time, or it might go away from time to time but always return. You may feel the pain deep in the bone of your tooth. Or you may feel referred pain in your face, jaw, or in your other teeth. Tooth pain may have other causes besides root canal. Some other possibilities include gum disease, a cavity, referred pain from a sinus infection or another problem, a damaged filling, or an impacted tooth that may be infected. No matter what the cause, it’s a good idea to see your dentist if you have tooth pain, especially if the pain is persistent. Early diagnosis and treatment for tooth pain typically leads to a better outcome.
2. Sensitivity to heat and cold
Does your tooth hurt when you eat warm food or when you drink a cup of coffee? Or perhaps your tooth feels sensitive when you eat ice cream or drink an icy-cold glass of water. The sensitivity could feel like a dull ache or a sharp pain. You may need a root canal if this pain lingers for an extended period of time, even when you stop eating or drinking. If your tooth hurts when you eat or drink something hot or cold, it may be an indication that the blood vessels and nerves in your tooth are infected or damaged.
3. Tooth discoloration
An infection in the pulp of your tooth can cause your tooth to become discolored. Trauma to the tooth or the breakdown of the internal tissue can damage the roots and give the tooth a grayish-black appearance. According to Kenneth Rothschild, DDS, FAGD, PLLC, who has 40 years of experience as a general dentist, this discoloration is easier to see in a front (anterior) tooth. “Tooth pulps can die when there’s an inadequate blood supply, thus signaling a possible need for a root canal,” Rothschild explained. Although tooth discoloration can have other causes, it’s always a good idea to see your dentist if you notice that a tooth is changing color.
4. Swollen gums
Swollen gums near the painful tooth can be a sign of an issue that requires a root canal. The swelling may come and go. It may be tender when you touch it, or it may not be painful to the touch. “Swelling is caused by acidic waste products of dead pulp tissues, which may lead to swelling (edema) outside the root tip area,” explained Rothschild. You may also have a little pimple on your gum. This is called a gum boil, parulis, or abscess. The pimple may ooze pus from the infection in the tooth. This can give you an unpleasant taste in your mouth and make your breath smell bad.
5. Pain when you eat or touch the tooth
If your tooth is sensitive when you touch it or when you eat, it could indicate severe tooth decay or nerve damage, which may need to be treated with a root canal. This is especially the case if the sensitivity persists over time and doesn’t go away when you stop eating. “The ligament around the root tip of an infected tooth may become hypersensitive from the pulp dying. The waste products from the dying pulp may irritate the ligament, causing pain from biting pressure,” said Rothschild.
6. A chipped or cracked tooth
If you’ve chipped or cracked your tooth in an accident, in a contact sport, or by chewing on something hard, bacteria can set in and lead to inflammation and infection. Even if you injure a tooth, but it doesn’t chip or crack, the injury may still damage the nerves of the tooth. The nerve can become inflamed and cause pain and sensitivity, which may require root canal treatment.
7. Tooth mobility
When your tooth is infected, it may feel looser. “This can be caused by other factors besides pulpal necrosis (nerve death), but it can be a sign that a root canal is necessary,” said Rothschild. “Acidic waste products from nerve death can soften the bone around the root of a dying tooth, causing mobility.” If more than one tooth feels loose, the mobility is likely to have a cause other than an issue that may need a root canal.