A root canal is a type of dental procedure used to treat advanced tooth decay or severe infection to a tooth. The medical term for a root canal is “endodontic therapy” and a dentist who specializes in root canal work and related treatments is called an “endodontist.”
Root canals have a reputation for being painful, costly, and generally something to avoid. It’s true that this type of dental work is more complicated and time-consuming than others. Most people do not look forward to getting a root canal – this procedure has often been the subject of jokes, as in: “I’d rather get a root canal!”
But if you understand the facts about root canal treatment, hopefully the whole process will be more understandable and reassuring. You don’t need to feel afraid of having a root canal – it’s just part of the process of healing your teeth and getting on with your life.
A journey to the center of your tooth…
The “root canal” is the part of the tooth that includes the internal chamber inside the tooth which is full of pulp and nerves. The tooth’s nerve is not terribly important to the day-to-day functioning of your teeth – the main purpose of a tooth’s nerve is to detect hot and cold. But if your tooth pulp and nerve become infected, it can cause big problems for your tooth.
Abscess makes the heart grow fonder?
When a tooth’s pulp and nerve become infected, or if tooth decay proceeds to the point that it affects the interior of the tooth, this is called an “abscess” – you have an “abscessed” tooth. This means that your tooth is basically being infected and/or damaged from the inside out – the exterior of the tooth might appear normal (or nearly normal), but the inside of the tooth is full of pain.
How do I know if I need a root canal?
One of the first signs that you need a root canal is extreme pain in your tooth – a really bad toothache.
Other symptoms include extreme tooth sensitivity to hot and cold; discoloration or darkening of the tooth; swelling, tenderness, or a recurring pimple on the nearby gums.
At other times, root canal work may be needed even if no symptoms are present – this is one of the things that dentists check for during your regular dental appointments.
What happens during a root canal?
Basically, when you get a root canal, the dentist drills into your tooth, removes the infected/decayed pulp and nerves, gives the tooth a thorough cleaning, and then seals up the tooth. The main portion of the root canal work can often be done in one visit, but the dentist might wait a week before sealing the tooth, especially if there was an infection – the dentist will treat the infected tooth interior with medication prior to sealing. The end result of a root canal is often a dental crown or other permanent restoration – you will end up with a fully functional tooth, even if it’s no longer a “natural” tooth.
How painful is a root canal?
Although root canal treatment has a bad reputation for being painful, most patients report that it doesn’t feel much different from getting a regular dental filling. Your dentist will use a local anesthetic to numb the surrounding area of your teeth and gums. Most patients are able to treat any follow-up discomfort with over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen, and the vast majority of root canal patients are able to return to their normal activities the next day.
So don’t be afraid if you find out that you need a root canal. Far from being the object of jokes, this type of dental treatment can give you many new reasons to smile.