Cosmetic Dentistry Blog Cosmetic and General Dentistry Questions Answered

August 24, 2018

Steroids for root canal pain – not always the best answer


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Dr. Hall,
I had a root canal and crown done in March 2018, weeks after the procedure I started to have pain. I went back to my dentist who x-rayed the tooth and found no cracks, etc. They referred me to an endodontist in June 2018 and she put me on a course of antibiotics. Two weeks later I saw her again. The pain had for the most part disappeared and she said it would continue to feel better over time. We left for vacation in July and all was well. Then a couple of days ago I woke up with severe toothache. I saw my endodontist the next day she put me on a course of steroids. I’m still in excruciating pain. Throbbing, pulsing pain.
Please help!
Regards Sandra from Ukiah, California

Sandra,
Steroids are becoming popular as a treatment for root canal pain. While they’re effective in some situations, there seems to be a certain amount of misuse because of a lack of understanding of the pharmacology combined with a deficiency in diagnostic skills. In your case, steroids are clearly the wrong treatment.

Plus there are a couple of other things I disagree with about your treatment. But let’s start with the steroids.

A steroid is an anti-inflammatory drug, and a very effective anti-inflammatory. It calms down the body’s response to inflammation. But one thing to understand about the body’s response to inflammation is that there is purpose to it. Part of that response is bringing white blood cells to the area to fight infection. In other words, steroids also act to block the body’s response to infection. This makes it really important for the dentist to know what is going on before prescribing. Is there infection, or just simply irritation?

Immediately after a root canal treatment there is ordinarily some irritation of the tissue around the end of the root caused by pushing some of the infected material inside the tooth through the end of the tooth, maybe pushing some of the disinfecting solution and filling materials through the end of the tooth, and possibly from the root canal files actually poking through the end of the tooth during the instrumentation of the tooth. This irritation can cause a vicious cycle of post-operative pain because the inflammation causes swelling of the tissues around the end of the tooth, pushing the tooth up, causing traumatic occlusion, which exacerbates the inflammation, pushing the tooth further up and increasing the pain. Steroids can be an excellent therapy for this situation, though there is some risk because some of the problem is the infected material pushed out of the end of the tooth. For this reason, steroids given to patients post-operatively are often combined with a short course of antibiotics.

But when a tooth flares up weeks after, as happened in your case, that is probably going to be solely because of infection. It is much too delayed to be connected in any way to irritation from the actual treatment. That’s why the endodontist prescribed antibiotics in June, which worked. The success of the antibiotic therapy confirms that the problem was infection.

But it’s at this point where I begin to disagree with your endodontist. The fact that you had an infection flaring up in the tooth weeks after the completion of the root canal treatment indicates that there was some problem with the root canal treatment. The root canal systems inside some teeth can be complex and it can be easy to miss parts of the system that don’t get fully cleaned out and sealed. So I have a hard time figuring out why your endodontist, who has to know this, would tell you after a delayed post-operative infection in a root canal tooth, that everything is going to be fine now. In most cases, that tooth is going to flare up again with another infection—it’s just a matter of time.

And sure enough, several weeks after that, your tooth did flare up. And here is another part of what she did that is puzzling to me. How can it be not clear that this is an infection and not simple inflammation? In my opinion, steroids are absolutely the wrong treatment here. You need another course of antibiotics and, at a minimum, the root canal treatment needs to be re-done because it has clearly failed.

This brings me to another part of your treatment that I disagree with, and that is placing a crown on this tooth before being sure that the root canal treatment was successful. The crown makes re-treatment more difficult, since now a hole needs to be drilled in the crown to get access to the roots and visibility is impaired.

My recommendation? Find another endodontist who is willing to tell you the full story of what is happening to your tooth and address a real solution. The first dentist missed part of the root canal system (or some similar mishap in the procedure) and the treatment has failed. This isn’t to condemn your dentist—as I said, some of these teeth have complex canal systems and in some cases it can be nearly impossible to clean them out and seal them completely. Anyway, your options now are:
1. Root canal re-treatment,
2. Root canal surgery, or
3. Extraction of the tooth.

Good luck,
Dr. Hall

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About David A. Hall

Dr. David Hall was one of the first 40 accredited cosmetic dentists in the world. He practiced cosmetic dentistry in Iowa, and in 1990 earned his accreditation with the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry. He is now president of Infinity Dental Web, a company in Mesa, Arizona that does complete Internet marketing for dentists.

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