Dental patient getting cavity filled. Dentist working with dental polymerization lamp in oral cavity.

Do Cavity Fillings Hurt? What to Expect During a Dental Filling Procedure

Judging by her twitter account, TV personality, Kelly Osbourne, is deadly afraid of dental fillings or any other dental treatment. Each time she tweets about her fears, the response from followers who can relate is overwhelming. That’s no surprise. It’s estimated that 36% of Americans have a phobia of dentists and dental treatments. If these folks develop cavities and need a procedure involving needles or drills, you can imagine how their fears can go into overdrive. 

But scary as it sounds, getting a cavity filled is an easy procedure nobody needs to be afraid of. Dental filling procedures are short, fairly painless, and very common. And getting the procedure done is a no-brainer when compared to the pain and damage an untreated cavity can cause. 

Cavities are decayed holes in teeth that when left untreated can progress to cause irreversible dental damage and may even lead to complications like heart disease. If you’ve developed a cavity, it’s crucial you work through any dentophobia you have, so you can get a dental filling done as soon as possible. 

We realize that this advice falls into the category of things easier said than done if you belong to the group of people with a genuine phobia of dentists.That is why this article demystifies the dental filling process and helps address any fears you may have. At the end, we also give recommendations on what you can do to make your recovery as painless as possible.


What To Expect During Your Dental Filling Procedure

Not knowing what happens during a dental filling drives much of the anxiety surrounding the procedure. Here is a step-by-step breakdown of what you can expect at your dental filling appointment so you are armed with all the information you need to help ease your fears.

  • Step 1: Numbing the Area to Prevent Pain

Provided your dentist has already completed an examination and confirmed the existence of a cavity, the first step will be numbing the region to be operated on. 

The tooth and the area surrounding it is sanitized, then covered with a numbing gel to help ensure you feel no pain during the procedure. To further prevent the possibility of your feeling discomfort, your dentist may also inject the gum around the area with a local anesthetic like Lidocaine so that all sensation in the area is deadened for the duration of the procedure. 

With all these precautions, it is highly unlikely you will feel any pain. Some people feel a sting at this point, but that is actually a good sign as anesthesia stings slightly as the medicine moves into the tissues and it begins to work.

  • Step 2: Putting in a Rubber Dam 

After the area has been numbed, the dentist may put in a rubber dam. This is an optional step and is not used for most fillings. If used it may help you to relax, as you don’t have to worry about what to do with your tongue during the procedure. 

The rubber dam is a square material made of latex that is used to isolate the teeth being operated on, and keeps the debris from it from getting into the rest of the mouth.

  • Step 3: Drilling Out The Decay

After your dentist has taken the steps to numb the area to prevent you from feeling pain and inserted the dam, he will proceed with drilling out the decayed portion of the tooth.

Drilling is done with a small dental drill or laser to remove the decayed parts of your teeth so that they can be filled with new dental material. This sounds painful but since many cavities are treated before they get anywhere close to the nerve endings at the root of your teeth, the drill usually only penetrates layers of teeth that cause no pain. When the dentist does need to get close to the root, local anesthesia administered in step one should take care of any discomfort. 

Do fillings hurt without an injection? Some patients opt to go without the numbing injection. Sometimes this is due to a fear of needles. But in other instances, patients just prefer to avoid anesthetics and are willing to endure some discomfort. The level of pain varies with the depth of the procedure. Superficial cavities can be drilled without anesthesia and without significant pain or discomfort.

After drilling, a stream of water is used to clean the cavity of debris and bacteria so it’s ready to be filled with new dental material.

  • Step 4: Filling the Tooth

The final step in your dental drilling procedure is filling the tooth with dental material meant to prevent further decay. The most common materials used to fill a cavity are composite resin or amalgam made of metal based-materials. 

Once the cavity has been filled, the layers of material are hardened with a special light, then smoothed out to ensure a pleasant appearance.

If you are wondering, “do cavity fillings hurt?” the answer is no. The filling itself does not cause pain and the procedure of getting a filling is usually pain-free if the tooth was anesthetized properly.
And that’s it.

If all goes well, in just four steps your dental filling treatment will be over, with little sensation being experienced by you. However, if any of the following applies, you may experience some discomfort.

Factors Affecting Pain During The Dental Filling Procedure

  • The Number of Cavities and Length of Procedure

If you are fortunate, you only have a single cavity that can be taken care of in minutes. If you have multiple cavities, your dentist will need to keep your mouth open for a longer time so they can all be filled. When this happens your jaw may begin to feel sore due to having to keep your mouth open. 

For this reason, the dentist may choose to spread your treatment over two or more visits, if there is a lot of work to be done. Some dentists also will just work on one quadrant of the mouth on a given visit. That keeps the visit shorter and puts less strain on the patient.

  • The Size and Location of The Cavity

If your cavity has progressed deep into your tooth, the dentist may need to drill close to the nerve. The closer the drill gets to the nerve endings, the more likely you will feel pain.

However, this is usually only a problem if you rejected anesthesia and chose to depend on the numbing gel as your only source of pain relief.  Even if you refuse anesthesia initially, the dentist can easily adjust the procedure to introduce anesthesia at any time if you begin to feel pain. 

Options For Decreasing Pain During A Dental Filling Procedure 

Local Anesthesia

Local anesthesia like Lidocaine and Benzocaine are commonly administered during filling procedures as long as you have no fear of needles and no allergies to these agents. They are the first option you should discuss if pain is a source of anxiety for you. Local anesthetics also wear off easily and don’t interfere with your ability to drive yourself home after the procedure. 


Your dentist may also be able to offer ‘conscious sedation’ agents if you have extreme dentophobia or are too anxious to calm down. These agents can make you groggy but rarely put you into the deep sleep normally associated with hospital sedation.

While they don’t necessarily induce a deep sleep, ‘conscious sedation’ agents ease anxiety and create a condition where you are more relaxed. The most common sedation agents are ‘laughing gas’ which alters your state of mind so you feel completely relaxed, and oral sedation which is administered in pill form about an hour before your procedure. 

Your doctor may give you oxygen to remove the remaining gas from your body. Once your procedure is over and your body has been flushed of the ‘laughing gas’ you can drive yourself home.

Oral sedation agents similar to Valium are a bit stronger and can leave you feeling groggy and unstable. To be safe, you’ll need to have someone drive you home after your procedure.

If you have an extreme form of anxiety you can also discuss sedation through IV liquids. This form of conscious sedation is the most powerful and you may fall asleep while under this type of sedation. You will need help getting home if you go this route.

Once you get home, here are the best practices for dealing with any discomfort you feel in the days following getting a filling.

How To Deal With Pain After a Dental Filling Procedure

After your procedure, the numbing agents administered in the dentist’s office will wear off and may leave you with some discomfort for a few hours or even days afterwards. Let’s look at how you can lessen discomfort after your filling.

Stay Away From Foods At Extreme Temperatures

Because your teeth will be sensitive from the procedure for at least a few days, it’s a good idea to stay away from extremely hot or cold foods and drinks while you recover. Eating these foods may cause pain and discomfort.

Over-The-Counter Pain Relievers 

Sometimes the discomfort from the sensitivity in your filling and the surrounding areas can feel unbearable. Over-the-counter pain relievers may help ease this discomfort while the area heals.

Cold Compresses for Pain In The Jaw

If you had to keep your mouth open for an extended time, applying a cold compress to the jaw should get rid of any pain you experience as your jaw goes back to normal.

Maintain Good Oral Hygiene

Fillings are hardy and long lasting, but improper care of the teeth they are part of can lead to new decay. Be sure to stay on a regimen of regular flossing, brushing, and cleanings. If you find that your new filling is sensitive to your usual toothpaste, switch to one made for sensitive teeth.

Stay Away From Hard Foods

Hard foods can damage fillings so stay away from anything that is hard enough to require effort to bite into. Doing so may cause the filling to crack.

These steps should take care of the usual level of discomfort you can expect to experience after a dental filling procedure. It is important to follow your doctor’s post-operative instructions. However, sometimes you may feel pain that needs immediate attention. 

When To Contact Your Dentist After a Dental Filling

  • If you notice the filling separating from your teeth or if the filling cracks
  • If after a few days, the area feels swollen or inflamed
  • If the filling feels sharp or elevated above your tooth
  • If you experience a throbbing pain deep within the tooth

When done with the modern techniques we now have for decreasing pain, dental filling procedures are a quick way to treat cavities with little to no pain. Always seek help the minute you think you have a cavity so that the condition doesn’t worsen to become more severe.