A root canal, also called endodontic treatment, is a common and safe procedure to treat an infection in the pulp of the tooth. Years ago, damaged and diseased teeth were removed. However, our teeth are meant for life, and saving a natural tooth is usually the best option over time. Patients who suffer tooth loss often find an unpleasant change in the way they speak, chew, smile and interact with others. A missing tooth puts unnatural strain on adjacent teeth and can lead to further tooth loss. While many patients are well-served by false teeth (dental implants, bridges and dentures to name a few), the best option for your continued good health is to save your natural teeth.
The advent of modern dental techniques has enabled dentists to save and repair damaged teeth through root canal treatment. Infected teeth that are not extracted or repaired will be a source of infection, contaminating the body and weakening the immune system. Because damaged teeth do not heal on their own, as they get worse, they will continue to damage bone and be the source of extreme pain.
Teeth become infected when the pulp, the soft tissue of nerves and blood vessels inside the tooth, gets injured. Deep cavities and cracked or fractured teeth and large fillings are common causes of injury to the pulp. All of these can allow bacteria to get into the pulp chamber causing infection and disease. When this happens, the pulp cannot repair itself and dies. If this is left untreated, the pus from the infection eventually builds up at the root tip, making a hole in the jawbone called an abscess. An abscess can cause damage to the surrounding bone.
Although some people have no symptoms, the following are common signs of tooth infection and the possible need for root canal treatment:
- pain or throbbing while biting, which also can be caused by tooth grinding or a cracked tooth
- swelling, which also can be caused by periodontal disease
- severe tooth decay
- prolonged painful response to cold and especially hot
- spontaneous pain that lingers
A root canal may require one or more visits to the dentist. During treatment the diseased pulp is removed and the pulp chamber and root canals are cleaned, disinfected and sealed.
The first step is to make an opening through the crown of the tooth into the pulp chamber.
The unhealthy pulp is carefully removed, and the canals are cleaned, enlarged, and shaped (step 2). Medications may be put in the pulp chamber and root canal(s) to help kill bacteria and prevent infection.
If the tooth is severely infected, the tooth may be left open for a few days to drain. A temporary filling is placed in the crown to protect the tooth between dental visits. If the procedure is completed in one day, the canals are filled and then sealed (step 3). Antibiotics are sometimes prescribed to help control infection. It is important to take all medication as prescribed even if the tooth is not hurting. After root canal therapy a large filling or crown is usually placed over the tooth for further protection. Another purpose of a crown is to protect the tooth from fracture. A crown also helps prevent recontamination by the bacteria naturally found in the mouth by creating a further hermetic seal with the tooth.