Is My Tooth Dead After a Root Canal?

Written & Reviewed by Dr David Chen

After the root canal your dentist will proceed to tell you that the tooth is now dead. You’re probably wondering what that even means and why would you even get the procedure if it kills your tooth.

root canal steps diagram

Let us explain.

Vital vs Non-vital tooth

The difference between a dead tooth and one that is alive is that the latter has a functioning nerve that can detect stimuli. It can feel the cold, heat, and even pain. That is a good thing.

Vital tooth

If you subject a vital tooth to various stimuli it will sense it and relay it back to you.

  • If you drink an ice cold beverage your teeth can immediately feel it.
  • If you eat hot soup your teeth knows that it is hot.
  • If you try to get a dental filling without any numbing, you will feel pain.

Essentially a tooth that is alive can feel all sorts of sensations. It will send you a sensitivity or pain signal if try to subject it to extreme amounts of stimuli. That is a protective mechanism that lets you know to back off before you hurt yourself.

Dead tooth

A non-vital tooth will have a non-functioning nerve which means it will not be able to detect any stimuli at all. You won’t feel a single thing because it is devoid of all feelings.

  • Ice cold soda won’t bother it.
  • Hot pizza won’t bother it.
  • Your dentist can drill on it and you won’t feel an ounce of sensitivity.

Root canal teeth are dead

A root canal is an endodontic procedure that removes the nerve from the tooth, thus rendering it nerveless. Since it no longer has a functioning nerve it will be devoid of sensations and can be considered dead or non-vital.

Steps for a root canal:

  1. Administer local anesthesia. Without numbing the procedure will be painful.
  2. Create access opening. Your dentist must drill through the enamel and dentin before it can reach the pulp.
  3. Remove nerve. This is the step which extracts the nerve from the tooth but leaves tooth in the mouth. Only the nerve gets removed.
  4. Disinfect canals. The canals must be disinfected with sodium hypochlorite and EDTA to ensure that it is bacteria-free.
  5. Fill canals. A root canal filling (gutta percha) is placed inside the canal to fill it.
  6. Place temporary filling. A temporary restoration made of Cavit or IRM is placed inside of the tooth. After that you can return to your restorative dentist for a core build up and crown.

Once the procedure is done the tooth will be left without a nerve. Since there is no nerve it won’t feel any sensations and thus it can be considered dead.

What it looks like on an x-ray

Dead teeth that have been root canal treated will have a white line going through root on an x-ray. That white line is the root canal material which shows up with a distinct radiopacity.

Front tooth after root canal x-ray
dead front tooth after root canal x-ray

What it feels like to have a dead tooth

As scary as it may sound, a dead tooth after a root canal will be devoid of all sensations but at least it will be painless. That is a good thing because most teeth that need root canals present with a raging toothache.

The reason you feel pain is because the nerve is alive and fully functional. However after the procedure and it gets removed you will be free of that toothache that was bothering you. Pain free is what you want.

The only downside is that the tooth will no longer feel sensitivity to cold or hot. However that doesn’t bother people because the adjacent teeth in the mouth can still feel it. Most people can’t really tell that their now deceased tooth isn’t feeling temperature sensitivity at all.

How long does it last?

Non-vital teeth which have been treated with a root canal may last many years. In fact it can potentially last you until the end of your lifetime if you take care of it properly.

How to take care of it:

  • Brush and floss. You still need to brush it and floss it like any other tooth in the mouth. The good news is that you don’t have to do anything extra for it.
  • Minimize sugar. Despite being dead, it doesn’t make it immune to tooth decay. If you eat too many carbohydrates you can still potentially develop a cavity on it!
  • Regular dental check ups. Getting routine oral examinations with your dentist can help prevent problems. You can catch them while they’re small and address them quickly before they become complicated.


If you don’t take care of your root canaled tooth, it can end up with complications.

  • Tooth decay. Yes, it can potentially develop a cavity because bacteria don’t care if it is alive or not. The acid byproducts from oral bacteria can still cause a hole through the tooth.
  • Recurrent infection. After the root canal the tooth is properly disinfected but there is always the possibility of a dental abscess returning via other means. If that happens you will need a root canal retreatment.
  • Tooth fracture. Dead teeth that have been endodontically treated should get a crown on it. When the nerve gets removed the blood supply also comes out with it. That means it will no longer receive nutrients thus it becomes brittle over time. Without a crown for protection the tooth can crack if you eat something hard.


In summary, your tooth is officially dead once you finish your root canal procedure. The entire purpose of the treatment is to remove the nerve and since it can no longer feel any sensations it is considered deceased.

However that is a good thing because typically most people were in pain prior to getting the treatment. The root canal relieves you of all pain thus providing you much needed relief. Now all you need to do is to take care of it so that nothing happens to it again like another infection.


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