A root canal is often talked about as a feared dental procedure. It is actually the common term for endodontic therapy. The aim of the procedure is to save an infected or decayed tooth. The root canal system refers to the natural cavity within each tooth. Soft pulp fills this system and consists of nerves and blood vessels. When bacteria enter this root canal system, the pulp can become abscessed. The infected pulp must be removed and the inside of the tooth cleaned and sealed.
While the presence of healthy nerves within teeth is not essential to their function, they offer sensory benefits. Without nerves, the sensation of hot and cold cannot be felt. An infected tooth can also mean pain and discomfort. If a root canal infection is not treated, the tooth may have to be removed. Potentially, the infection could spread to other teeth, the jaw, sinuses and even the brain. Ignoring a root canal infection could have detrimental consequences.
A root canal procedure typically takes one or more dentist visits. Either a dentist or endodontist can perform the procedure, the latter being someone who specializes in dentistry concerning the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of dental pulp and nerves. X-rays are taken as the first step to the treatment of a root canal, to confirm the problem and also locate the decay. The administration of local anesthetic starts the procedure.
Next, the dentist positions a rubber dam around the tooth to protect it from saliva bacteria. Once this is completed, an opening in the tooth is created to access the root canal system. The cavity is then cleaned and the pulp removed. Finally, the dentist fills the canal with a rubber compound called gutta-percha material and seals the tooth using cement. A filling is added on top to cover the access hole.
Additional dental work is sometimes needed following a root canal treatment (e.g. a crown of bridge to reinforce the weak tooth) but for most people, a period of recovery follows the treatment. While some level of discomfort and soreness can be expected, the recovery period following a root canal procedure is similar to that of a cavity filling. Over-the-counter medication such as Tylenol can be used to treat the pain.
Resting after the procedure is recommended due to the anesthesia and expected soreness. Natural tissue inflammation can also be anticipated, but severe swelling would require advice from a dentist or endodontist. It is important that a normal oral health routine with twice-daily brushing and flossing should still be followed after a root canal treatment.
The root canal procedure has long had a stigma for being exceptionally painful. With modern dental equipment, techniques, and pain medication, this reputation is no longer valid. For most people, the procedure will be pain-free and the discomfort similar to that of a regular cavity filling. The recovery time has been greatly reduced, even from just a few decades ago. The root canal procedure actually relieves pain rather than causing it.
Many people avoid visiting their doctor when experiencing pain in their teeth, for fear of the perceived pain of a root canal procedure. Advances in dental technology and treatment have changed root canal management for the better, allowing for a pain-free procedure and faster recovery time. Avoiding root canal treatment can be dangerous; if you have concerns about infections in your teeth, speak to your dentist as soon as possible.