You’ve probably heard about root canal therapy before, but what is it exactly? And why might you need one?

Here’s everything you need to know about the role dental pulp plays, the root canal procedure itself, and why this treatment is critical in preserving both a tooth and overall oral health.   

What is a root canal?

Endodontic treatment, more commonly referred to as root canal therapy, or simply a root canal, is the removal of inflamed or infected dental pulp from inside the chamber of the tooth. Removing infected dental pulp saves the health of the tooth by halting the spread of damage and preventing the tooth’s ability to become reinfected. 

So what exactly is dental pulp? Dental pulp is a bundle of soft tissue and nerves in a chamber-like space below the enamel and dentin layers of the tooth. It provides nourishment to the tooth during development and is also responsible for those sharp pains experienced when biting into something especially cold. Adult teeth no longer require dental pulp to continue their normal function as a part of a healthy smile, so it can be successfully removed. In fact, a tooth that has received root canal therapy can go on to last a lifetime when properly cared for. 

The Root Canal Procedure

After determining a patient is a candidate for a successful root canal, a date for the procedure can be scheduled. On the day of, the root canal procedure starts with anesthesia being applied to the area, so the patient will not experience any pain or discomfort while the dentist is restoring the tooth. A protective bumper will be placed around the tooth to keep it dry while the dental team works. Once the area is numbed, your dentist will drill a small hole into the tooth. This hole allows the dentist to access the dental pulp inside the affected tooth. 

Using specialized tools, your dentist will carefully remove all of the infected tissue, nerves, and debris from within the cavern and down in the roots of the tooth. After the pulp and infection have been completely removed, the dentist will then clean and disinfect the inside of the tooth. 

Next, an inert rubber-like material called gutta-percha is used to fill the inside of the tooth, essentially replacing the dental pulp. Depending on the amount of damage caused by infection, either a dental filling or crown will be placed over the tooth to completely restore its full function and appearance. 

In some cases, when an infection is severe, the procedure will take place over two appointments. Before filling and sealing the tooth, medication may be used to ensure the area is fully clear of infection. If this is the case, a temporary filling will be placed to protect the tooth until it is filled and permanently sealed. 

Two separate appointments may also be necessary if a tooth requires restoration with a dental crown. An impression of the patient’s bite will be made and sent off to a dental lab to be used as precise measurements for fabricating a custom crown. The fabrication process can take a few weeks, so a second appointment is required to have the permanent crown placed.  

Why might I need one?

Typically, a root canal is required when the dental pulp has become inflamed or otherwise infected. Signs that your tooth may need a root canal include: 

  • You are experiencing pain when chewing or biting.
  • There is a lingering sensitivity to hot or cold after the cause has been removed.
  • You have swollen, tender gums that may also be developing pimples or darkening in color.
  • A tooth, or its crown, has developed a chip or crack.
  • There has been trauma to the tooth. 

Left untreated, infected dental pulp will cause increasing pain and can lead to the development of an abscess (a swollen pocket of pus). An abscess needs to be drained and treated by a professional, as it will continue to grow in size with the risk of spreading the infection to other areas of the body or even bursting. A burst abscess doesn’t just hurt; when it’s located in the mouth, you’ll also be able to both taste and smell the foul liquid it contained. 

If you are experiencing the above symptoms, it’s very important to have a dentist examine your tooth and discuss treatment as soon as possible. By saving as much of the natural tooth as possible with root canal therapy, 100% of dental function can be preserved,  strengthening the jawbone, keeping surrounding teeth in alignment, and making sure everyday activities, like eating, are pain-free.