Working with thought leaders on shaping their speaker platform is an incredible privilege. In this candid conversation, a relatable and powerful speaker, Dr. Sonia Chopra, DDS., talks about how we can save our teeth and why getting a root canal does not have to be painful. She believes you can actually fall asleep during the procedure, when done right.
Tricia: You’re an endodontist. Let’s start, Sonia, by sharing with the readers what that is.
Sonia: An endodontist is a dentist that specializes in root canal therapy and the art of saving teeth. The art of saving diseased teeth … Teeth. We save teeth.
Sonia: I always say I’m a tooth saver to the max. That’s what I say.
Tricia: A tooth saver to the max? I love that. Why do you call this an art form?
Sonia: Because there is so much art behind it. There is an art in diagnosing pain, tooth pain. There is an art in the procedure itself. There’s an art in managing patients and all their fears and behaviors and heartbeats.
Tricia: Okay. This is epic. When we think about dentists or root canal specialists, the endodontist, I don’t think anyone on the planet thinks of this as an art form or that you care about managing their fears. What got you thinking about it in this way?
Sonia: Most of my energy in my day goes on managing my patients’ fears about what it means to have a root canal. Most patients are missing the information, so they are all afraid, and think it’s going to be painful. There are tears in almost every other appointment. I have to have a box of tissues ready because people are either scared about the procedure or they’ve been up all night with pain. There is so much that happens to a person, that changes a person when they have lack of sleep … I know that when I’m meeting them in that first appointment, I’m not really meeting them. I will meet them at the second appointment because they’re feeling better and they bring their true self to the appointment, but they are not themselves at that first appointment.
Tricia: When did you realize that not only in your skillset do you need to save teeth but you also need to manage fear, be empathetic? At what point in your career did you realize that you had to wear several hats?
Sonia: I think very early on but I think it’s a skill that I had to massage for a very long time to get good at.
Tricia: What did you do to get good at it?
Sonia: I listened. I listened really hard and I just let people know that I was listening.
Tricia: Do you feel like your patients’ lives are being saved ultimately when you save their teeth?
Sonia: Absolutely. Maybe some more than others because I’ve alleviated more than one symptom, because they’ve been plagued with a sinus issue for years and then I do the root canal and all of a sudden, the sinus issue also goes away in addition to their tooth problem.
Being able to solve migraines, sinuses, just making people not feel so cruddy. They’ve just been plagued with an infection that is bringing their everything down but then also their anxiety, like healing them from an anxiety standpoint and then being a part of their journey to overcome fears is a huge one, when they realize they don’t have to be afraid of the dentist. They don’t have to be afraid of the root canal, the doomed root canal, is really nice. It’s definitely more than just saving a tooth.
Tricia: How did you get into this field of work?
Sonia: Because I was a patient myself and I had a very similar tooth story that prevented me from sleeping, that made me feel bad, where I was infected, and just changed my whole self for that moment of time and where I need to figure out how to alleviate that pain. I was misdiagnosed by several clinicians and my pain was even dismissed, and this went on for months. This event in my life is what formed who I am today and how I practice as an Endodontist. I get it because I lived it.
Tricia: What about endo do you love, Sonia?
Sonia: I love saving teeth that most people think are not savable.
Tricia: You love the challenge behind your work as well?
Sonia: I love proving people wrong. I love busting myths. They say, “Oh my gosh. That infection is too big. It won’t go away with root canal therapy”. Or, “You need this procedure, this procedure, and this procedure to get this done”. But you don’t. You need just the root canal and it all fixes.
Like I said, I love helping people overcome their fears. They realize that the root canal doesn’t have to be a scary thing, that they can actually fall asleep during their root canal.
Tricia: You just said root canal therapy, which I’ve never heard you say. Can you expand a little bit on the idea of root canal therapy? As a practice, as a treatment. I think most people think of a root canal as the end.
Sonia: Root canal is a therapy. It is a procedure, but it is a therapy to bring your tooth almost back to life, not to resurrect it because the nerve in your tooth is dead, but rather to change the environment that’s inside your tooth and disinfect it back to health. The goal of the root canal is to typically save your tooth and if there’s any bone loss around the tooth, to regenerate that bone, which I feel like most people find is really neat. More neat than saving the tooth, because they think, “Oh, do I have to take calcium to regrow this bone?” It’s like, no, you don’t have to do anything. You just have to be yourself and the bone will come back. I think one of the myths around the root canal is that it’s a painful procedure but, in fact, root canals should not hurt. The reason why it gets a bad name is because of the pain that’s usually associated when you need the root canal. Does that make sense? That is the painful part and we are the alleviators of that. The other thing is people think the tooth has to come out for the procedure and the tooth doesn’t come out. The tooth stays in place and with good anesthesia, you get a good root canal that is painless. That’s why I take 30 minutes to make sure a patient is properly numb. Good anesthesia means a good root canal because you really should only feel little vibrations, me dancing around in the tooth. That’s all you should feel but nothing should be sharp or painful.
Tricia: Why are so many root canals frequently sharp and painful?
Sonia: Because the anesthesia was the problem. It’s not the root canal procedure. It’s the anesthesia administration that was the problem and the patient wasn’t adequately numb. If you do it enough times, you’ll realize there’s a lot of checks and balances that you can go through before you pick up the drill to make sure that the patient is numb instead of finding it out the hard way by starting to drill on the tooth. If you do a few checks and balances beforehand, you can talk to the patient and make sure that they understand you’re testing it, you’re verifying that there’s proper anesthesia, so they don’t look at you like, “You don’t know how to numb.”
Tricia: You are clearly on a mission to save teeth and inform patients. What about the part of your mission that is about informing and educating dentists?
Sonia: This is the art form that I want to teach to make other dentists artful in their root canals.
Tricia: You’ve been able to create E-School: Everyday Endo Made Easy. Is this why you created E-School so that you could reach more dentists and share this art form, share your knowledge?
Sonia: The reason why I created E-School is because … It goes back to my original tooth story and after being in practice for over 12 years now, I realized that my tooth story shows up in my practice in other patients every day. Every single day. I realized that the education system is broken. There’s not enough time in the four years of dental school to teach all of this stuff. Dental school should be just like medical school where you learn the basics and then you pick a track and you become specialized. You become an OB-GYN or you become a radiologist or you become a neurologist or you become a pediatrician. Everyone picks a track and they go for an additional couple of years down that track to get really good at their craft.
Tricia: What else do you want us to know, Sonia?
Sonia: I really want people to understand when a tooth is simply infected versus when it needs to be extracted. I think there’s still a big misunderstanding of teeth that can be saved. We need teeth to save and to work on teeth to have an industry. I want to save more teeth and I want to do that not only for my industry but for people because teeth are so important to our overall health and wellbeing. I also want to decrease global healthcare costs because I want to make sure that people are paying for a treatment once in their lifetime and they don’t have to duplicate that treatment over and over.
Your teeth are so important. It’s really easy to take advantage of them because you don’t really pay attention to what they’re doing for us. They are going to help you get nutrition to your body. It’s going to help you stay hydrated even. I remember meeting this one lady. She was a caretaker for one of my patients who was in a nursing home. She wrote me this letter and I actually think I still have the letter. She said, “You are doing great things. You don’t see what I see. What I see is when these people are malnourished and dehydrated, it expedites the dementia and they may lead a long life but it’s not a long and healthy life.” With their teeth, they would be able to sustain a better life. They’re losing their dentures on their lunch tray and then they lose it because they forget and they don’t know where it is. She took the time to write me that nice letter to make me realize even beyond what I thought the importance of teeth. Our mouth is the gateway to our body and we need to protect it. This is where everything starts. This is the beginning of our gut. This is where we need to take extra special care. This is where we smile. This is what helps us procreate. This is what helps us pass on our genes. It’s a very special place that we need to make sacred.
Dr. Sonia Chopra is a Board Certified Endodontist and founder of Ballantyne Endodontics in Charlotte, NC. When she opened her practice in 2008, her goal was to help patients understand the “why” and “how” of their procedure. She works with her local dental community to host seminars and learning events, and has recently launched an online education forum for general dentists worldwide, sharing knowledge on perfecting endodontic skills, and focusing on thorough diagnoses, delivering compassionate solutions and considering whole patient care.Dr. Chopra is an active member of the American Association of Endodontists and she is a mom of 3!!! You can visit her website and subscribe to the blog HERE. And follow on Facebook “Sonia Chopra, DDS – Endo for All” and Instagram @SoniaChopraDDS. Grab a copy of her new book Tooth Wisdom: The Empowered Patient’s Guide to Saving Your Smile