If You’re Looking for Alternatives to Root Canal, Start Here
This article has been medically reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Michelle Jorgensen, DDS, FAGD, TNC, and dental advisor to GreenSmoothieGirl.com.
Has your dentist told you that you need a root canal? Before deciding what’s right for you, it’s important to know that you have choices. Alternatives to root canal do exist, and they may be a better fit for you. Part of achieving optimal health is being proactive in your own health plan, and that means learning about all your options!
In this article:
- What is a root canal?
- What kinds of problems does root canal therapy treat?
- What are the potential downsides of a root canal?
- What are the alternatives to root canal?
- What should I do if I’ve already had a root canal?
What is a root canal?
A root canal is better termed a root filling. In the center of each tooth, there is a space where the dental pulp (the soft tissue inside) exists. This “root” of the tooth contains blood vessels and nerves. If that pulp dies, either from a deep cavity or trauma to the tooth, a root canal (root filling) may be performed to avoid infection and further decay.1
During the root canal procedure, your endodontist (root canal specialist) will use very small files to remove the damaged or decayed pulp, clean the now-empty canal area with a disinfectant-like bleach, and seal the space with a rubber-like filling.
With the root removed, the tooth is now weak and vulnerable. In order to strengthen the tooth, a crown (artificial tooth covering) is made to go over the tooth. The procedure leaves a dead tooth in the jawbone, covered with a crown.
The whole process typically happens over two or more hour-long visits.
What kinds of problems does root canal therapy treat?
Dentists may recommend a root canal for inflammation or infection in the nerve area, the innermost layer of the tooth. Inflammation or infection can happen when severe tooth decay isn’t addressed properly and reaches the pulp. In other cases, an oral injury (like a hard fall or a hit to the mouth) may expose the pulp. Untreated inflammation can lead to the tooth dying and a cyst or abscess forming at the side or end of the root. This abscess fills with pus as the infection progresses, and can cause severe pain.
The basic idea behind root canal treatment is to “save” the tooth from having to be extracted. Unfortunately, the procedure can set you up for more problems than it solves:
What are the potential downsides of a root canal?
While a root canal may relieve pain and infection in many cases, there are several risks and drawbacks to consider.
- Risk of failure
- Root canals can fail. Unfortunately, it is not possible to fully remove all of the nerve tissue from the canal. There is an average of three miles of microscopic tubules (canals) within a single tooth, and even the most skilled endodontist does not have the capacity to fully clean all the pathways. Remnant bacteria can live in the anaerobic environment of the tubules after a root canal, and cause further infection, and inflammation as your immune system rallies to fight it off. I lived this situation, and ultimately had my root canal teeth pulled.
- Crown Maintenance and aftercare
- The crown you receive at the end of the root canal procedure will need maintenance. The average crown lasts about 10 years. And if there is a metal core under that crown (from an earlier cavity), it will continually attract bacteria to the tooth during those years.
- If an infection is the cause of your root canal (rather than a tooth injury), antibiotics may be prescribed post-treatment to reduce remnant bacteria and inflammation. Unfortunately, there is little evidence2 that antibiotics are effective in this situation. Some endodontists speculate that the lack of blood supply within the tooth makes it difficult for the antibiotics to reach bacteria deep inside the tooth. And that’s not the only drawback of antibiotics: Antibiotics affect gut flora by wiping out all bacteria rather than targeting bad bacteria only, and they should only be taken (and balanced with probiotics) when absolutely necessary.
- Worsening of other conditions
- Root canals can also exacerbate symptoms of chronic and degenerative diseases, according to Dr. George Meinig, one of the founders of the American Association of Endodontists and author of Root Canal Cover-Up.
- A ground-breaking 2013 study, published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation, showed that failed root canals are closely associated with heart attacks and strokes.3 The oral bacteria that causes root canal abscesses was found in 78.2% of the clots and blood samples from 101 heart attack patients, and x-rays from 30 of the patients found that 50% had infected teeth. Followup studies have confirmed this link,4,5 and dental researchers have called for a more integrated approach between medicine and dentistry to help identify and treat cardiovascular disease.6
- Dr. Josef Issels, MD, a world-renowned cancer specialist, explains in his book Cancer: A Second Opinion that over 90% of his 16,000 cancer patients in 40 years had between two and ten root-canaled teeth in their mouths. He believes that root-canaled teeth generate toxins that can lead to cancer, and as part of his healing protocol, he requires all his cancer patients to have their root-canaled teeth removed.
- Dr. Jerry Tennant’s findings support these conclusions. In his book Healing is Voltage: Cancer’s On/Off Switches, Dr. Tennant states that diseased teeth are related to 90% of cancers.
Fortunately, alternatives to root canal do exist, and they may be a better fit for your health:
What are the alternatives to root canal?
Holistic dentists estimate that about 75% of root canals are unnecessary7 and could be better addressed by alternate treatments:
An extraction removes the entire tooth with the root canal.
When a tooth is damaged so severely that the root must be removed, the tooth is effectively dead. Rather than keep a dead tooth in their mouth, many people opt for extraction to get rid of the tooth completely. There are several possibilities for closing the remaining gap, including:
- Partial dentures, which are removable and can replace one or more teeth
- A bridge, which consists of a false tooth connected on both sides by crowns to keep it the false tooth in place
- A dental implant made of strong, biocompatible materials like zirconia, affixed to the jawbone. Well-cared-for implants can cost less over a lifetime than a root canal, since there is not a need for further treatment.
Liquid Root Canal Therapy
A new dental procedure called GentleWave is another option if your endodontist believes your tooth can still be saved. This newer procedure uses liquid to clean the tubules in the root of the tooth, instead of instruments. The procedure takes less time, requires a minimal opening in the root of the tooth (which minimizes chances of additional infection), typically requires one visit (instead of multiple follow-up visits), much faster healing time that a traditional root canal, and high success rate of preserving and healing (instead of killing and essentially embalming) the injured tooth.
Treatments to Buy Time
Not sure what you should do? There are a couple of minimally invasive treatment options that will buy you time so you can make a decision.
A dentist can inject ozone gas near the end of the tooth’s root to reduce bacteria in the area. This procedure won’t eliminate all the bacteria, and it may have to be repeated often, but the procedure may help reduce inflammation for some period of time.
If the tooth is already dead, the root canal area can be filled with calcium hydroxide as a temporary filling material, which will also keep the bacteria at bay for a period of time. Neither ozone nor calcium hydroxide treatment is permanent, but either one can buy you some time to make a decision about extraction versus a root canal.
What should I do if I’ve already had a root canal treatment?
Everybody’s situation is different, so make sure to consult with your biological dentist on the best next steps for your body. In my case, when my root canal teeth failed, I ended up having them pulled. I’m certainly glad I did, but your decision may be different depending on the state of your teeth. No matter what you decide, there are some guidelines you should follow to avoid any future issues:
Follow an anti-inflammatory diet
A whole-foods diet with a variety of plants is a great way to lower inflammation. Remove processed foods and reduce sugar intake from your diet as much as possible. For those who are particularly sensitive, you may also want to remove gluten, dairy, and nightshades like tomatoes, peppers, goji berries, potatoes, paprika, and eggplant for a period of time to see if symptoms of inflammation subside.
Eat antimicrobial foods
While it may not be possible to fully eliminate all the bacteria in the root canal, it doesn’t hurt to incorporate more foods in your diet that have antimicrobial and antibacterial properties, such as clove, garlic, orange, coconut oil, and basil.
Oil pull with coconut oil
Since coconut oil is antimicrobial, it helps attract and pull bacteria out of the mouth (more on how oil pulling works here). Swish up to 1 tablespoon of the oil in your mouth and through your teeth for at least five minutes each morning (and spit in the trash, as coconut oil becomes solid at room temperature and can clog your sink pipes with re-solidified oil).
Keep stress levels low
Chronically high cortisol levels can cause a number of health issues, namely chronic inflammation. Ensure you get restful sleep each night, enjoy movement throughout the day, and practice self-care like meditation and other calming activities to help keep stress levels down.
Manage gut health
An amazing 70% of the immune system is located in the gut. This means that poor gut health can negatively affect immune response (among many other body systems). Incorporate gut-friendly probiotic foods into your daily diet (such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and kombucha) and get adequate hydration for proper production of stomach acid, which helps digestion.
How you deal with an infected or injured tooth is a decision only you can make, but it’s important to know that there are alternatives to root canal therapy. If your dentist has recommended a root canal, you may want to consult with a holistic health practitioner as well to get a better handle on all the options available and make an informed decision. Use our free Holistic Dentist Finder to get in touch with a biological dentist in your area.Robyn Openshaw, MSW, is the bestselling author of The Green Smoothies Diet, 12 Steps to Whole Foods, and 2017’s #1 Amazon Bestseller and USA Today Bestseller, Vibe. Learn more about how to make the journey painless, from the nutrient-scarce Standard American Diet, to a whole-foods diet, in her free video masterclass 12 Steps to Whole Foods.
- Murray C. A., Saunders W. P. Root canal treatment and general health: A review of the literature. International Endodontic Journal. 2000;33(1):1–18.
- Cope A, Francis N, Wood F, Mann MK, Chestnutt IG. Systemic antibiotics for symptomatic apical periodontitis and acute apical abscess in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014:CD010136.
- Pessi T, Karhunen V, Karjalainen PP, et al. Bacterial signatures in thrombosis aspirates of patients with myocardial infarction. Circulation. 2013;127(11):1219-1228. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.112.001254.
- Bale BF, Doneen AL, Vigerust DJ High-risk periodontal pathogens contribute to the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis. Postgrad Med J. 2017;93(1098)215-220. Published online 2016 doi: 10.1136/postgradmedj-2016-134279.
- Fifer, KM, Qadir S, Subramanian S, et al. Positron emission tomography measurement of periodontal 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose uptake is associated with histologically determined carotid plaque inflammation. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2011;57(8):971-976. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2010.09.056.
- Bale B, Doneen A. Beat the Heart Attack Gene: The Revolutionary Plan to Prevent Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes. Nashville, TN: Turner Publishing Co.; 2014
- Tribeca Center for Integrative Holistic Dentistry. “Alternatives to Root Canal.” Accessed February 8, 2020.