An old saying claims, “Gain a child, lose a tooth,” and this old wives’ tale isn’t far from the truth! Between pregnancy hormones and the developing baby’s calcium needs, pregnancy can be a tough time to keep up good oral health. Fortunately, in modern days you’re not doomed to lose a tooth, but if you find yourself needing dental work, you may wonder if it’s safe to get a root canal while pregnant.
What Is a Root Canal?
Root canal treatment is typically used for teeth that show extensive decay, have a faulty crown, or are cracked or chipped. You have soft tissue called pulp underneath the bony part of your tooth. The pulp has blood vessels that nourish the tooth, but inflamed, infected pulp can cause pain or lead to an abscess. A mature tooth can get sufficient nourishment from surrounding blood vessels in the gums, so your dentist or endodontist may recommend a root canal to save your tooth. The procedure looks like this:
- The dentist uses an X-ray to diagnose the tooth’s condition.
- The dentist applies local anesthetic to numb the area around your tooth.
- After making an opening in the crown of the tooth, the dentist carefully removes pulp and shapes the interior space in your tooth for filling.
- Your tooth is filled, similar to a filling for a cavity. You may have a temporary filling at first and need an additional appointment to get the permanent filling.
- The dentist will place a crown or similar cap over the tooth to protect the tooth and make biting and chewing easy and pain-free.
Are Root Canals Safe While Pregnant?
You probably noticed a few potential warning flags in that list. Aren’t you supposed to avoid X-ray radiation while pregnant? Will the anesthetic medication cross the placenta and affect the baby? Would it be safer to wait until the baby’s born before having the procedure?
Pregnancy is a vulnerable time for your oral health. The extra blood flow throughout your body can lead to inflamed gums and teeth. Hormones affect the way your body’s normal systems run, and pregnant people have some of the highest risk for dental issues and infection.
Badly decayed or infected teeth need immediate dental attention, so the infection doesn’t spread to other teeth, your gums, and other areas of your head and neck. Not to mention that the pain can make eating painful, which can affect your ability to take in the nutrients a developing baby needs to thrive. While you should put off cosmetic procedures, like tooth whitening, until after the baby is born, in most cases a root canal procedure is a safer choice than risking complications from an untreated infection.
This isn’t to say that there’s no risk whatsoever from a root canal. Like any medical procedure, there are risks involved. If you need a root canal, make sure your dentist knows you are pregnant, and how far along you are. They will often take the following measures to minimize risks to you and the baby:
- Schedule root canals and other necessary treatment for the second trimester, if possible. This is after the critical stages of organ development in the first trimester, and before your third trimester belly makes lying on your back for extended periods difficult and uncomfortable.
- For your X-ray, you’ll get “double shielding” of lead aprons to limit radiation to your abdomen and throat (to protect your thyroid). Your baby won’t be in the direct path of the beam, and experts agree that the risk of a single X-ray is very small, especially when it’s not an abdominal X-ray.
- The medication used to numb your mouth does cross the placenta, but the most common medication is considered Category B. That means animal studies showed no fetal risk, but there aren’t studies on actual pregnant women (this is fairly common for ethical reasons).
- Most antibiotics you may take after the procedure are also Category B medications. The dentist or endodontist will evaluate the risks and benefits of medications, and prescribe you medicine with benefits that far outweigh the risks.
Root canals, despite their dreaded stereotype, can be a powerful way to protect your and your baby’s health during pregnancy. Get the medical care you need, and you may be surprised by how quickly your smile is back to good health.