Most people don’t like going to the dentist. If you’re heading in for a root canal, you could be feeling double the dread if you don’t know how much it will cost.
It’s understandable to worry about whether you can afford a root canal, but this isn’t a procedure to skip because of cost. You might be able to pass on some dental work, but a root canal is usually advised when the root of a tooth is infected and there’s a risk that the infection could spread to other parts of the face and neck.
“A root canal treatment is done to clean out this infection from inside the tooth so surrounding tissues can heal,” says Dr. Don Atkins, a dentist in Long Beach, California. In most cases, the only safe alternative to root canal is complete removal of the tooth, Atkins says.
Don’t procrastinate. The infection will only get worse the longer you wait.
The cost of a root canal
The ailment itself sounds painful, but treatment can damage your bank account. Doing research ahead of time and comparing prices can help you know what you’re in for; prices will differ depending on which tooth needs the root canal, which dentist you choose and where you live.
FAIR Health, a nonprofit organization that collects health care cost data, has provided NerdWallet with estimates of reasonable charges for root canals. Here are the average national prices for three root procedures:
- Front tooth: $762
- Bicuspid: $879
- Molar: $1,111
Those averages should give you a good idea of the charges to expect for the root canal alone. However, prices may be higher depending on your location, specifically if you live in a coastal area.
You should also know what is too much to pay. Even in more expensive locations, aim to pay less than the 80th percentile, meaning less than what the top 20% most-expensive dentists charge for a root canal.
Here are the 80th percentile prices, according to FAIR Health:
- Front tooth: $929
- Bicuspid: $1,054
- Molar: $1,300
Your dentist will have to place a crown or a filling in the tooth afterward, and that will be an additional charge. If your dentist uses a filling, it should cost less than $500, and a dental crown should cost less than $1,300, using that same 80th percentile standard.
In total, if you pay cash, root canals can cost anywhere from $300 to $2,500 for the visit. To get a more accurate estimate of reasonable charges in your area, you can use the FAIR Health website to look up costs by ZIP code.
Like many medical procedures, complications can arise and increase the final cost. “Some tooth roots may be cracked due to trauma or decay, or have unusual numbers or contours of the root canals, and this isn’t always easily detected prior to treatment,” Atkins says. Complications also may occur if the root canal is delayed and the infection spreads significantly, he adds.
Understanding your charges with insurance
The figures above can seem like a lot, but you may not have to pay the whole bill at your current dentist — or you may be able to find another dentist for much less. (Bargain shopper beware: if you decide to have a new dentist perform your root canal, she may require an additional exam, which adds a fee.)
Your cost will be much lower if you have dental insurance. Most plans cover 50% to 90% of reparative procedures like root canals, fillings and crowns after a deductible is met. Dental insurance deductibles are usually less than $200.
What does that mean for you? Here’s an example. Say your dentist charges $500 for the root canal and $900 for the crown and its placement, and your dental plan covers 70% of charges. The total charges would be $1,400, and your portion would be 30% of that, or $420.
Spend less on your root canal
That’s a lot less than the full cost of your root canal, but it doesn’t help you if you don’t have dental insurance. If that’s the case, there’s still more you can do to save money:
- Go to a dental school for care. You can let dental students do the work for you at a much lower cost than a practicing dentist. Don’t worry, dental students will always be supervised by a professional dentist instructor.
- Check daily deals websites. The same companies that email daily deals on everything from electronics to vacations also often have dental care offers. Check Groupon or LivingSocial for current deals on dental care in your area.
- Enroll in a discount membership club, available for less than $200 a year. While that may seem like an extra expense, these plans offer discounts of up to 50%.
- Ask for a payment plan or a cash-pay discount. If you know you’ll have a hard time paying for your root canal, it’s best to be honest with the billing staff upfront rather than avoid payment. Explain that you won’t be able to pay all at once, and ask whether you can have a payment plan. Alternatively, if you think you’ll be able to pay cash or write a check for most of the charges, tell them you can pay upfront in exchange for a 10% discount. You may be surprised at how willing they are to work with you.
- As a last resort, you can use a credit card. In the long run, you’ll pay more for your root canal if you put it on a credit card, but it’s still better than letting the bill go to collections and harming your credit score. Ask for the same discount as paying in cash; your dental provider may readily agree in exchange for same-day payment.
No matter what, if your dentist tells you that you need a root canal, you should have it done. These tips can help you get a fair price.
This post was updated. It was originally published on Feb. 5, 2015.
Image via iStock.