If you’re like most people, visiting the dentist is probably close to the bottom of your favorite things list. All of the sights and sounds in a dental office can be very overwhelming, and if you find out that you need to have a dental procedure done—like a filling or root canal? Anxiety can skyrocket.
What if your dentist is telling you that you need to have work done, but you’re not sure if you should? How do you know if the procedure is medically necessary or an upsell? Should you be getting a second opinion?
There’s a lot to consider before you agree to a dental procedure, and these are just some of the questions you should ask first.
When I hear reports of patients (or the parents of patients) being threatened and forced into having dental work done, it upsets me. Dentists are supposed to make patients feel comfortable and acknowledged on the road to dental health. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.
But know this: As a patient, you have rights. You have the right to know and understand your dental history, and what led to any diagnosis. You have a right to ask any question before agreeing to a recommended dental procedure. And you have a right have those questions answered.
Why You Need to Visit the Dentist Regularly—Even if You Don’t Have Any Cavities
Before we get into the questions you should ask your dentist before any dental procedure, I need to address something very important.
Visiting the dentist regularly—at least twice per year—is a critical part of maintaining good oral and dental health.
If you are making these regular visits, it should never come as a surprise to your dentist when symptoms arise. And if the dentist is doing his job, you shouldn’t be surprised either.
Finally, if there is an issue, there should be ample time to address it with less invasive measures that don’t require an expensive dental procedure, including simple lifestyle changes.
WIth that in mind, your dentist should be equipping you with the necessary resources to support good dental health, including information on which foods to eat and avoid to heal and prevent cavities, as well as how to brush properly.
Seeing the dentist regularly is also important because it helps you to foster a good rapport with him. Then you will feel more comfortable asking for clarification and trusting the dentist’s final decision if he does recommend a filling, root canal, or other dental procedure.
The Three Most Common Dental Procedures
If you have been experiencing prolonged dental pain, or your dentist has already discovered a significant issue during an exam and/or x-ray, it’s likely that your dentist will recommend one of the following three dental procedures:
It is much preferred to leverage proper diet and dental hygiene to reverse cavities naturally, but that isn’t always possible. If a cavity is causing pain, is overly sensitive to heat or cold, or has reached the pulp of your tooth, you probably need a filling.
A filling is exactly what it sounds like: Your dentist will remove the diseased portion from the inside of your tooth and fill the resulting hole with a material that holds the form of your tooth.
The remaining part of the tooth is still alive and will continue to remineralize and demineralize based on your habits and diet.
A root canal is necessary if decay has grown unchecked to reach the roots of tooth, or if there is an infection.
Root canals differ from fillings in that they are designed to preserve—not save—a dead tooth. I compare this dental procedure to the mummification process.
A tooth that is dead will become brittle and prone to breaking after it is filled, which is why you need the crown that is placed on top of the tooth to protect it. And doing this, instead of pulling the tooth, can help you avoid problematic shifting and the need for a bridge or implant to fill the space.
When tartar builds up on teeth and is not removed through dental cleanings, it will slowly creep down past the gum line. And when the tartar gets to a certain point below the gums, the tooth will no longer attach correctly.
A root planing, also referred to as scaling, is the process of cleaning, scraping, and disinfecting affected teeth. Those words may sound scary, but the end result of this sometimes necessary procedure is smoother, healthier teeth.
Root planing is often more expensive than other dental procedures due to the additional time and work involved. Also, your dentist may recommend that you be given anesthesia depending on the extent of the tartar and calculus on your teeth.
7 Questions to Ask Before Agreeing to Any Dental Procedure
While fillings, root canals, and root planings are common, you shouldn’t agree to any of them without having a full understanding of why your dentist recommended it and whether there are any viable alternatives.
With that in mind, here are the most significant questions I advise people to ask their dentists before agreeing to any dental procedure.
Do you incorporate nutritional counseling into your treatment plans?
Without a conversation about proper diet and how it relates to the mouth, you will never solve the real problem when cavities, dry mouth, or other oral issues present themselves.
Unfortunately, when dentists fail to discuss proper nutrition with their patients (whether because of negligence or ignorance), they often blame the patient for any issues.
If you suddenly have a lot of cavities, sensitive teeth, or some other issue, and your dentist tells you it’s because you aren’t brushing or flossing enough, it may be time to find a new dentist—before you agree to having a dental procedure done.
I follow (and recommend) a mostly paleo diet that focuses on organic vegetables, high-quality meats, and healthy fats. It also limits or eliminates grains, sugars, and processed carbs—all of which contribute to an imbalanced oral microbiome, cavity formation, and a host of other issues.
Asking your dentist about his approach to nutrition in dental care will help you determine if he is equipped to address your current concerns—and avoid future problems—with a holistic approach.
What kind of fillings do you use?
You should absolutely ask your dentist what kind of material he plans to fill your cavity with, and if the answer is metal (amalgam fillings made from mercury), you should run.
Metal fillings are unnecessarily dangerous, and it’s why functional dentists opt for safer options like ceramic fillings.
Unfortunately, the majority of standard filling materials come with some dangers, like BPA in composite resin and fluoride in glass ionomers. But the good news is that new options are being released all the time!
Currently, the most common filling options are composite resin or plastic fillings, which carry much less risk.
How can I get fillings using safer materials when my insurance is so restrictive?
Try going to a dental school.
Dental students love the opportunity to use their new skills to help people get out of pain or resolve a current problem. Their teachers love to see them get real-world experience. And you’ll love that their rates are much lower than those of traditional dental offices.
It’s a win-win-win!
Although you may be skeptical about having a student performing your dental procedure, students are carefully monitored and mentored by fully qualified professors while the work is being done.
Keep in mind, though, that students will likely take much longer to complete a dental procedure than a full-time dentist, so plan accordingly.
What is the least invasive way to treat my problem?
Sometimes, a dentist will opt for what’s easiest for him, rather than offering the best long-term solution for you. I encourage patients to advocate for themselves by making sure they are given all the options before agreeing to a dental procedure.
What are the risks and benefits of this dental procedure?
Any medical procedure—dental or otherwise—comes with some risks. Before agreeing to have anything done, it is your responsibility to inquire about any reasonable risks and/or benefits. With the choices laid out for you, you can then make the decision that is best for you.
Can my tooth decay be remineralized?
A word of warning: Many dentists may freak out if you ask them about remineralizing, or reversing, a cavity on your own. But knowing the depth of the cavity, and whether the cavity has broken through the dentin, can help you make that decision for yourself.
Understanding whether or not your tooth has decay that can be reversed can help you avoid dental procedures that aren’t necessary. It will also help you to adopt a better diet and lifestyle, which is absolutely imperative if you’re going to be successful in your remineralization efforts.
Are you able to describe what you’re seeing so I can get a second opinion?
No, this is not a fun question to be asked as a dentist—but it’s important for you, as the patient, to ask. Unfortunately, you may come across the occasional money-hungry dentist who recommends a dental procedure simply so he can bill more.
Even if you’re not concerned about over-billing, it’s possible that you may feel uncomfortable with a diagnosis or course of treatment. In that case, a second opinion can help to reassure you (or potentially reveal a treatment that was unnecessary).
To recognize whether or not you’re dealing with a caring dentist, look for signs such as several fillings in the same quadrant of the mouth or a refusal to fully explain x-rays. It’s also a red flag if a dentist says that you have several new cavities that need to be filled immediately, even though it’s the first time you’ve been made aware of them.
How to Prevent Fillings, Root Canals, Root Planings and Other Dental Procedures
If you’ve found this article because you’re considering a major dental procedure, I hope that you now feel equipped to gather the information you need to make that best decision possible.
I also hope that, by following the tips below, you won’t need any other dental procedures in the future.
1. Focus on nutrition.
We’ve only scratched the surface of this topic here, but remember that your number one option for preventing any dental procedure is following a diet that prevents and heals cavities naturally.
Fill your plate with lots of veggies, grass-fed or pasture-raised meat, and healthy fats. And avoid sugars, starches, and any processed food.
2. Add dietary supplements.
Hand-in-hand with proper nutrition are the benefits of dietary supplements. Consider adding vital nutrients, minerals, and vitamins via supplements like calcium, vitamin K2, magnesium, and phosphorus—especially if your diet isn’t ideal.
3. Practice proper hygiene.
If you want to maximize oral and dental health and prevent the need for dental procedures, you also need to practice proper dental hygiene.
4. Keep learning.
You get one set of adult teeth and they can last a lifetime if you take care of them.
By equipping yourself with information (be sure to sign up for our newsletter!), you will not only gain a better understanding of oral health, but you will also have peace of mind when choosing the right dentist and agreeing to a dental procedure, should the need arise.
As a patient, you’re still in control! You don’t have to blindly agree to any dental procedure, and you have the right to speak up and have your concerns addressed.
And even if you don’t need to have work done, you should never be afraid to ask any question about your dental health and history—even if it makes your dentist uncomfortable.
It’s your mouth, after all.Learn More: Reversing Tooth Decay and Healing Cavities Naturally: Top Questions Answered