Root canals don’t impair the immune system, experts say

The Claim: A Root Canal Can Disable 63% of Your Immune System

In the 1920s, Weston Price, a Canadian dentist, theorized that root canals – procedures in which infected or inflamed pulp is removed from inside a tooth – allow bacteria to “seep ” in the body and cause disease.

Since this theory was first debunked in the 1930s, it has been refuted time and time again, dental experts told USA TODAY. But that hasn’t stopped similar claims from spreading online.

A recurring meme, shared by several hundred people from a Jan. 8 Facebook post, claims that root canals can alter the body’s immune response.

“A root canal tooth can shut down 63% of your immune system,” reads the meme’s text, imposed on an illustration of an abscessed tooth. The meme also claims that “dentists are the only doctors who believe you can get away with leaving dead tissue in your body.”

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The post was deleted after USA TODAY reached out to the user who shared it for comment. However, several posts with the meme remain online, including an Instagram post from May 6, 2021 liked by more than 2,000 users.

The meme was originally released in October 2019, several months after a documentary titled “Root Cause” revived interest in Price’s debunked theory, as reported by PolitiFact.

It’s unclear where the 63% figure comes from, but dental experts told USA TODAY that research has shown that root canals do not impair the immune system. However, leaving an infected tooth untreated can have serious consequences, even death.

USA TODAY has reached out to users who shared the claim for comment.

Root canals do not impair the immune system

The American Association of Endodontists told USA TODAY that the claim in the Facebook post was false. Endodontists specialize in treating conditions related to the inside of the tooth, which includes performing root canals.

“Performing a root canal has no inhibiting effect on the immune system,” spokesperson Kim FitzSimmons wrote in an email. “An untreated tooth infection can lead to more serious health issues, so it’s important to see an endodontist or dentist right away if you’re suffering from tooth pain.”

Adham Azim, associate professor and chair of the department of endodontics at Pacific University’s Dugoni School of Dentistry, also told USA TODAY that there is no research showing that root canals impair the immune system.

“I don’t think there’s any evidence to support that at all,” he said.

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If the claim were true, it stands to reason that people who get root canals would be at increased risk of disease. But there is no evidence that this is the case.

As FitzSimmons noted, an October 2013 JAMA Network study found that patients who had multiple endodontic treatments did not have an increased risk of cancer. In fact, the study found that patients were 45% less likely to develop head and neck cancers.

Experts say the misconception that root canals ‘shut down’ the immune system is dangerous because it could lead people to avoid seeking treatment for an infection.

Failing to treat a tooth infection in a timely manner can lead to complete tooth loss, according to the American Association of Endodontists website. The infection can also spread to parts of the face, causing sepsis and even death, Azim said, citing a 2021 case report in the Journal of Endodontics.

No need to remove all dead tissue from the teeth

The post’s claim that dentists “get away with leaving dead tissue in the body” is also misleading.

The tissue in the tooth that includes the nerves and blood vessels is called the “pulp”. During a root canal treatment, a dentist or endodontist opens a small entry point inside the tooth and uses instruments and disinfecting agents to remove dead tissue.

Decay in the pulp of the tooth causes death of the nerve and other parts of the tissue, Azim said. This is what causes inflammation and infection of the tooth.

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“Because the anatomy of the tooth is very complex, sometimes we can’t access all the spaces at the end, and that’s fine,” Azim said. “What we do after that is we seal off that root canal system…so there’s no more communication between the remnants inside the tooth and the bone around it.

“As a result, the infection will go away and the bone around the tooth will start to heal without complications or risks.”

Research shows that teeth that have undergone root canals have a 97% survival rate because the root canal “restores bacteria below the threshold that can cause a problem,” according to Azim. If done before dead pulp tissue irritates the bone, root canals can prevent more serious infections that would lead to bone loss and tooth abscesses, he said.

Our opinion: False

Based on our research, we rate the claim that a root canal can shut down 63% of your immune system FALSE. There is no credible research to support this claim, dental experts say, while studies have shown that root canals do not negatively affect the immune system. Untreated dental infections can lead to serious health problems.

Our fact-checking sources:

  • Adham A. Azim, January 12, telephone interview with USA TODAY
  • American Association of Endodontics, Accessed January 13, Root Canal Explained
  • American Endodontic Association, 2014, AAE Fact Sheet: Root Canal Safety
  • Kimberly FitzSimmons, January 12, email exchange with USA TODAY
  • JAMA Otolaryngology, October 2013, Dental Caries and Head and Neck Cancers
  • Journal of Endodontics, December 2004, Outcomes of Endodontic Treatment in a Large Patient Population in the United States: An Epidemiological Study
  • Journal of Endodontics, April 2021, From dental abscess to septic shock: case study and literature review
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 1, 2019, Opinion: Netflix’s decision to shoot root canal documentary a victory for science and facts
  • PolitiFact, November 13, 2019, Allegation about root canals causing serious disease not based on scientific evidence
  • Anya Vien, January 8, Facebook post (archived)
  • @planromance, October 29, 2019, Instagram post
  • Alien Dave, March 24, 2021, Facebook post
  • Indigo Montoya, March 22, 2021, Facebook post
  • @beauty_wellness7, May 6, 2021, Instagram post

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