Working to Dispel the Root Canal Myth

by Jill Porter, Einstein Perspectives
You can forgive Frederic Barnett, DMD, for being disturbed by what U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said on CBS’ 60 minutes on Sunday—and not about her controversial views on public education, either. What made Dr. Barnett cringe, as the Chairman of Dental Medicine at Einstein Healthcare Network, was what she said when asked about her contentious confirmation hearings: “I’ve never had root canal, but I can imagine that would be more pleasant.”

Ah, yes, root canal. The universal go-to analogy for the worst possible experience life has to offer, as in: “I’d rather have root canal than (most hated activity ever.)”

“It’s just a perpetuated myth and it gets worse and worse,” said Dr. Barnett, an endodontist, who remembers growing up listening to former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson frequently say the same thing. The fact is, he said: “The overwhelming majority of cases that are done now are painless.”

DeVos was famously eviscerated for inexperience and ignorance of issues concerning public education during her notorious confirmation hearings before a U.S. Senate committee. Her comparison of the hearings to root canal during a Sunday interview with Lesley Stahl reinforced the long-standing myth that it’s only preferable to the worst experience of your life.

Most of Dr. Barnett’s patients had believed that myth. However, most of them say afterwards that the procedure didn’t live up to the negative hype. He explains that the reputation of root canal may date back to a time prior to the universal adoption of local anesthesia. “Like any field of medicine, dentistry over the years has evolved,” Dr. Barnett said, noting that when he was a child, his dentist didn’t use any anesthesia at all and “everything hurt.” Not so any more.

“We’re sincerely not looking to torture anyone, contrary to what Betsy DeVos thinks.”

The exceptions are the occasions when a patient is already in so much pain that anything may make it worse. Or when anatomical quirks or the presence of severe inflammation and infection may prevent anesthesia from thoroughly numbing the tooth. “But most sophisticated endodontists know how to manage that type of situation,” Dr. Barnett said, “There are supplemental anesthesia techniques that we would try to use to make it painless.”

Root canal treatment is necessary when the pulp of a tooth—which includes nerves and blood vessels and other tissue—has become inflamed or infected, usually from decay that has been left untreated, defective fillings or injury. A specially trained dentist—an endodontist—removes the inflamed or infected pulp tissue, disinfects the canal, and finally fills the canal with a biocompatible material. According to statistics on the website of the American Association of Endodontics, more than 15 million root canal treatments were performed during 2005-2006, the last year for which numbers are available. Presumably many more are performed now.

Dr. Barnett said he works “one canal at a time” to dispel the myth of the agony of root canal. And then along comes Betsy DeVos to reinforce it on national television. Dr. Barnett jokingly said he’d consider inviting her to his dentist chair to experience a root canal, “so she could compare it to her confirmation hearings afterwards and decide which was worse.”

“We’re sincerely not looking to torture anyone, contrary to what Betsy DeVos thinks,” he said.

Reprinted with permission from Einstein Perspectives, © 2018.