The mouth is the gateway to the body. And it has a big impact on many of the body’s other systems. In fact, for many of us, it makes sense to treat our health holistically—which means acknowledging our body as a singular system, wherein every part has an impact on the others.

Most of us have experienced this to be true—for example, has mental stress ever led you to physical exhaustion? Has prolonged illness ever given you depression? I’ve noticed, though, that in some circles where natural and holistic health is discussed, occasional mistruths show up, like the focal infection theory.

This theory acknowledges that teeth matter and are an integral part of your overall health—but leans on inaccurate information about root canals. Having a root canal performed can prevent the spread of bacterial infection. But the pervasive focal infection theory about endodontics says that root canals can actually be bad for you. I want to address that rumor today. Because you NEVER know how many of your patients have this assumption. (And, I’m sad to say, I’ve actually met dentists who have it, too!)

The Beginnings of Focal Infection Theory

The focal infection theory is the origin of some serious misinformation when it comes to root canals.

This theory gained steam in between 1910 and 1940 and still has an influence today. Here’s the basics of the theory—the idea was that teeth without a pulp (AKA teeth that had been root canaled) could leak toxins and bacteria into the body, essentially poisoning the whole system. This could lead to diseases like arthritis, heart disease, kidney disease, nervous system diseases, and more.

And what happened as a result?

Dentist pulled teeth. A lot of them. You know how I feel about that. Major facepalm.
And here’s the thing—doctors and dentists in this period started pulling teeth to “cure” unrelated issues. So as you might guess, the original health problems persisted. And then there were a lot of people who were still suffering and also had a few less teeth. NOT a good situation!

The Persistence of Focal Infection Theory in Endodontics

Despite the ineffectiveness of extracting teeth to treat major illnesses, this method persisted and in fact was further popularized in the work of Dr. Weston Price, the research chairman of the American Dental Association in the first part of the 20th century. His faulty research suggested that infected or endodontically treated teeth were the source of many degenerative diseases.

I guess it was a whole lot simpler to remove a tooth than find a cure to a chronic disease, huh?

The public bought it, though.

And even though now we can look back and see that the research Price conducted was simply not up to par, the damage was done.

Kicking Misinformation to the Curb

It wasn’t until the 1930’s that clinicians, researchers, and other medical professionals started to re-examine what was taken for gospel with the focal infection theory. As more research (notably that of Cecil and Angevine) disproved the efficacy of pulling teeth to treat disease, focal infection theory was removed from the curriculum of dental schools and the general medical discourse.

And that’s when endodontics became a mainstream field of dentistry, with the mission to save the teeth that might otherwise have been removed. Hooray!

But all that progress doesn’t mean focal infection theory isn’t still alive and well today—almost a whole 100 years later! Oof.

There are documentaries and movements like Root Cause that repeat the same misinformation that was discredited a century ago. This has a profound negative impact on many people’s lives and health. Instead of receiving effective dental care, believers might rush to extract their teeth—which may worsen instead of cure their problems.

It’s the responsibility of all dental professionals and endo practitioners to make sure we set the record straight whenever we see myths being spouted. Now that you’re armed with the facts—you can knowledgeably challenge anyone who is confused about how root canals work. 

The Truth About Root Canals

Here’s the truth: if a patient needs a root canal, it means their natural microbiome is out of whack—and a root canal can help bring the body back into balance. And that is the start of full body health.

The alternative—like pulling a tooth—can lead to atrophic jaw bones, and it can impact your ability to bite and chew.

Let’s be honest, there are good root canals out there that prevent tooth loss and mitigate a whole lot of pain. As a result, these root canals can boost both mental and oral health!

There are also, unfortunately, some bad root canals out there that cause root canals as a whole to get a bad reputation. But when you follow the two cardinal rules of root canal therapy, your root canals can be regenerative in nature.

Need a quick reminder of those cardinal rules? They’re 1. Find every single canal. 2. Get to the end of every single canal. That’s it! It’s really that simple!

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Have you run into patients who don’t know the facts about root canals? Share your story in the comments.

– Sonia