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What is root canal?

Root canal therapy is designed to correct disorders of the dental pulp—the soft tissue inside the center of the tooth. Dental pulp contains nerves, blood vessels and connective tissue. Teeth with abscessed, or infected, nerves were once removed. But now, in 95 percent of these cases of pulpal infection, the natural tooth can be saved through modern endodontic procedures. Also called pulp specialists, endodontists have undergone specialized training in performing root canal therapy.

Without treatment, the infection of the dental pulp will spread to the bone around the tooth, making it unable to hold the tooth in place.

Why it's done

Root canal is done to treat pulpal nerve damage. The most common causes of pulpal nerve damage are:

  • Infection — This is generally brought on by tooth decay (cavity) reaching the nerve or a cracked tooth. Both of these situations can allow harmful bacteria to reach the nerve, resulting in infection and decay.
  • Trauma — A blow to a tooth or the jaw can cause damage to sensitive nerve tissue within the tooth.

Common symptoms of pulpal nerve damage include:

  • Pain in the tooth when biting down
  • Tooth pain while chewing
  • Oversensitivity of the teeth with hot or cold drinks
  • Facial swelling

Each individual may experience symptoms differently, and the signs and symptoms of pulpal nerve damage may resemble other oral health conditions. Consult a dentist, or other oral health specialist, for diagnosis.

What to expect

After anesthetic is administered, root canal treatment begins with the drilling of an opening in the top of the tooth (crown) to allow access to the pulpal tissue. Once the affected pulpal tissue is exposed, it is removed.

The area surrounding and containing the pulpal tissue is carefully cleaned, enlarged, and shaped to provide a clean surface for filling with a permanent filler to prohibit any further infection and discomfort. After the root canal is filled and sealed, a crown is fabricated to restore the natural tooth and prevent it from fracturing. The root canal procedure may be completed in one or more visits. Once the tooth is comfortable, the restoration with a crown can take place.

Follow-up care

Once the root canal therapy is completed, there will be changes to adapt to, including:

  • Brittleness — A pulpless tooth is more brittle than a non-treated tooth and great care should be taken to avoid fracture and chipping. The tooth is restored with a crown to prevent fracture.
  • Discoloration  A non-vital tooth may become discolored over time, but it can be treated with bleaching. In most cases, the discoloration poses no threat to the health of the tooth.

In addition, soft tissue inflammation may be a source of irritation in the weeks following surgery. Consult your dentist, or other oral health specialist, for a treatment approach to help control any postoperative swelling and discomfort.