What is a Root Canal?
Endodontics is the branch of dentistry concerned with diseases and injuries of the soft tissues inside a tooth, including dental pulp and nerves. A tooth’s nerve and pulp can become inflamed or infected due to decay, repeated dental procedures, large fillings, a crack or chip in the tooth, or trauma to the face.
When a tooth’s nerve tissue or pulp is damaged, bacteria begin to multiply within the pulp chamber. The infected pulp can cause severe pain and an abscessed tooth. An abscess is a pus-filled pocket that forms at the end of the roots of the tooth as the infection spreads. This infection can also cause:
- Swelling that may spread to other areas of the face, neck, or head.
- Bone loss around the tip of the root.
- Drainage problems. A hole can occur through the side of the tooth with drainage into the gums, or through the cheek with drainage into the skin.
During a root canal procedure, the infected soft tissue in the tooth is removed and replaced by a Dentist or Endodontist — a dental professional specializing in root canals and diseases in the soft tissues of the tooth — saving your natural tooth and restoring it to its normal function.
A tooth’s nerve is not vitally important to its health and function after the tooth has come through the gums. The nerve’s only function is to provide the sensation of hot or cold, and its absence won’t affect how your tooth works.
Though a root canal has an intimidating reputation, it’s a less onerous and expensive dental care option than tooth extraction and replacement with a denture, bridge, or dental implant. These alternatives require more treatment time, and additional procedures for adjacent teeth and supporting tissues.
Signs and Symptoms You May Need a Root Canal
Indications that you may require a root canal include:
- Tooth sensitivity to heat or cold
- Sharp pain, deep in your tooth when chewing or biting
- Chipped or cracked teeth
- Swollen or painful gums
- Darkened gums
- Tooth discoloration
- Pimples on your gums
Root Canal Prevention
Taking good care of your teeth and gums is crucial to preventing infection in the soft tissues of the tooth, and avoiding the need for a root canal. In order to maintain good oral health:
- Brush at least twice daily, especially before bed
- Floss at least once daily
- Avoid hard foods, especially sugary candies
- Avoid acidic drinks such as soda
- Wear a mouth guard to avoid sports-related injuries
- Schedule routine tooth cleanings
- See your dentist at the first sign of root canal pain
Treatment for Root Canals
Though damage to the nerve of a tooth may mean that a patient won’t feel any pain during a root canal procedure, your general dentist or endodontist will usually numb the area around the infected tooth with a local anesthesia. They will then create an opening in the tooth to access the root’s interior.
Your doctor will remove the infected pulp from the pulp chamber, then the tooth is cleaned and sealed. Some dentists might wait a week before sealing the tooth — for instance, your dentist may put a medication inside the tooth to clear any remaining infection. If the root canal isn’t completed on the same day, a temporary filling is placed in the exterior hole of the tooth to keep out saliva and food between appointments.
At the next appointment, to fill the interior of the tooth, a sealer paste and a rubber compound called gutta percha are placed into the root canal. A filling will then be placed to close the outer hole in the tooth.
Further restoration of the tooth may be required to restore it to full function. A tooth that needs a root canal often has a large filling, extensive decay, or other weakness. Your tooth may need a crown or other restoration to protect it and to maintain mouth function and a brilliant smile for years to come.