The symptoms of a bad root canal depend, to at least a certain extent, on why the procedure went off course, but some of the most common include pain extending past the normal healing period; inflammation and swelling of the teeth, jaw, and face; and infection. Gum sensitivity and teeth that become fragile or brittle may also be signs of trouble. Root canals are generally considered “routine” dental procedures, but people who suspect that something has gone wrong are usually wise to get treatment, or at least a second opinion, before waiting too long. In most cases, the faster bad procedures are identified the more likely it is that they can be fixed.
For most people the first recognizable symptom of a bad root canal is pain, though it’s important to note that some pain is normal after even a perfect root canal. The procedure is invasive and patients often experience discomfort for a week or more. Pain is only usually a problem when it doesn’t go away or gets worse. When the pain is very severe or lasts longer than the dentist or oral surgeon anticipates, it may be a sign that there’s a problem.
At first, the pain might be negligible or difficult to notice. For some people it is isolated to the region of the tooth in question, but it also has the potential to be very intense, most often a throbbing pain felt all over the head. A lot of this has to do with exactly why the procedure went bad. Sometimes surgeons don’t get all of the root, leaving some decayed bits deep in the gum; other times, the impacted tooth has been improperly sealed or capped. The pain a person feels is usually in proportion to how badly things were botched, or at least how close mistakes were to major nerve endings.
Swelling and Inflammation
People may also experience swelling in their jaws, gums, and even faces. In most cases this is a result of tissue inflammation in or around the impacted area. Inflammation happens when the body’s blood vessels and tissues expand and try to force out damaged cells, which typically causes swelling. Patients suffering from dental inflammation commonly complain of pressure and heat in the mouth along with swelling and pain. Most of the time skin that is inflamed looks red and “angry,” though it can be hard to see this in the mouth.
Infection is the probably the most serious symptom of a bad root canal, and in most cases it will not go away on its own. Bacterial strains cause infection by entering into the body and multiplying. There are a couple of different ways this can happen during a root canal, but the most common is remnants of tooth material or nerves that should have been removed but weren’t; when these bits and pieces are no longer attached to functioning teeth, they can begin to decompose. When this happens within the gum bed, infection almost always results.
A dentist who fails to sterilize equipment or who otherwise introduces germs to the site can put a person at risk of infection, and harmful bacteria can also come in during healing if the tooth hasn’t been sealed properly. Infections usually start locally, but unless they are treated — usually with antibiotics — they can spread and, in rare cases, may actually be life-threatening.
Intense, long-lasting sensitivity in the gums may also be a symptom. As is true with pain, some degree of sensitivity is normal and should be expected; the condition becomes concerning, though, if it just doesn’t go away or if it arises weeks or months after most other healing has finished. Late-onset gum sensitivity is sometimes a sign of nerve damage.
Tooth Fragility and Brittleness
It is sometimes the case that inflammation or infection is so minor at first that it all but escapes a person’s notice. Teeth that are riddled with infection and decay typically become very fragile and brittle over time, though, which means they will break and chip more easily. These symptoms may not manifest until months or even years after the original procedure.
When to Get Help
Most dentists and oral surgeons advise their patients to come in for an evaluation any time they experience intense pain or swelling after getting a root canal. Patients who are running a fever shortly after the procedure should also usually get checked out, since fever is often an early sign of infection. The earlier a bad root canal is recognized, the easier it usually is to fix.