Understanding root canals

What is a Root Canal?

A root canal is painful and expensive, according to most people who have undergone this dental procedure. Essentially, the tooth is hollowed, cleaned, and sealed to prevent infection from running rampant in the mouth. Although no one is really fond of them, sometimes a root canal is the only alternative to losing a tooth entirely.  

Reasons for a Root Canal

A root canal is the dental procedure as well as the space within the tooth that contains the pulp and the nerve endings. Sometimes the nerves or pulp of a tooth get damaged; the tooth may be cracked or chipped, which exposes the inside (the root canal), in addition to causing extraordinary pain. Bacteria can then work their way in, causing infection and even more pain, along with the possibility of an abscess, which is essentially a pocket of pus in the tooth’s roots that can be felt in the gums.

Once an abscess forms, it is possible for the bacteria and infection to spread into the bloodstream, causing serious damage. Bone loss, swelling, and holes that allow draining of the contents of the tooth’s interior into the surrounding skin can also form. Teeth can also decay, when not cared for properly, to such an extent that similar issues result. 

Crowns, fillings, and other dental procedures can sometimes prevent the tooth from reaching this point, but when done repeatedly or incorrectly, they can also cause more problems. While extracting the infected, broken, or decayed tooth will remove the problem, and is sometimes the only option, a root canal (the procedure) is an alternative that allows you to retain the tooth. 

Undergoing a Root Canal

After radiographs and an examination, a dentist or endodontist administers a local anesthetic to the area. Then, a small opening is made in the crown, and the pulp is cleaned and removed. The root canal of the tooth is then filled with a rubbery substance that is safe for the body, attached with adhesive cement so the tooth is completely sealed. A temporary filling is usually put on, then later removed to be replaced with a more permanent cap or crown, especially if there is excessive interior infection that needs to be treated. If the tooth needs to be restored (for example, if the decayed portion of the tooth is visible, white sealant can be applied to hide the discoloration), this will be done before the the final crown. 

Benefits and Risks of a Root Canal 

When the tooth is saved in this way, additional dental work is often not needed. You get to keep your natural smile, with no need for a partial, implants, or dentures. It’s still easy to chew and bite, and the other teeth don’t have to work harder to make up for the missing tooth.

Root canals have come a long way and are no longer as horrible a process, thanks to modern advances in dental technology. One can be completed in only a few visits. They are no longer as painful and can usually be managed with an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drug, such as ibuprofen. During the course of the procedures, the tooth should be used as little as possible to prevent additional infection or wear before the tooth is fully functional again. A proper root canal can last as long as any of the other teeth in your mouth, and they are nearly always successful.

Complications may include additional root canals, cracks in the tooth, undetected infection (potentially because of inefficient removal), or a breaking down over time of the material used to fill and/or seal the tooth. The largest drawback of a root canal is the expense: exams and radiographs not included, it can cost over $1000 at a dentist, and nearly $2000 when done by an endodontist. 

Last Updated: September 06, 2016