A root canal is a dental procedure that removes inflamed or infected pulp from inside the tooth. Pulp contains blood vessels, nerves and connective tissue that is important for the development of your teeth, but once teeth have fully developed, pulp can be removed without damaging the tooth itself.
Teeth can become inflamed or infected for a number of different reasons. You may have had an untreated cavity, resulting in an infection that spread from the outer surfaces of the tooth into the pulp. Inflammation caused by the infection then reduces blood supply to the pulp and prevents it from healing.
Other possible causes of inflammation or infection include repeated dental procedures, faulty crowns, or a crack or chip in the tooth. Trauma to a tooth may damage the pulp even if you cannot see any visible chips or cracks.
Symptoms that suggest need for a root canal include:
- Severe pain in your teeth when chewing or biting down
- Sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures, especially if it lasts for a time after the hot or cold has been removed
- Discoloration of the tooth—in particular, a dark spot or spots
- Swelling and tenderness of the surrounding gums
- A fracture or chip
In some cases, you may not notice symptoms at first, but pain and swelling will develop over time.
A root canal procedure is generally performed by an endodontist, a dentist who has special training in dealing with infected or damaged dental pulp. After taking x-rays, the dentist or endodontist will numb the area using a local anesthetic. Then, he or she will drill a small access hole at the top or side of the tooth, and using a series of root canal files, remove the pulp along with bacteria and decayed nerve tissue. Once the tooth is thoroughly cleaned out, it is sealed using a special sealer paste and rubber-like material.
An uncomplicated root canal can usually be completed in one visit, but there are a few exceptions. If your teeth have multiple roots, or curved root canals that are difficult to access, more than one visit may be needed.
And if there is an active infection, your endodontist may put medication inside the tooth and place a temporary filling; you will return once the infection has cleared up to have the tooth sealed and filled.
After root canal treatment, you will also need to see your general dentist to have a filling placed to seal the canal, or if the tooth is significantly discolored or broken down, a crown placed to protect it.
Most people say that having a root canal is no more painful than getting an ordinary cavity filled. Remember, you will have local anesthetic during the procedure. For the first few days afterward, your tooth may feel a little sensitive because of inflammation, but this can usually be controlled with over-the-counter pain medications, such as anti-inflammatories.
Root canal has a more than 95% success rate.
You can avoid the need for a root canal by taking good care of your natural teeth: brushing, flossing and using an antibacterial mouth rinse, and seeing your dentist regularly. If you play contact sports, a mouth guard can help prevent traumatic injury to your teeth.