Definition and Overview

Root canal is a dental procedure that is performed to repair a tooth that has become decayed. To be more specific, the tooth is considered to be decayed when the nerve of the tooth is infected and the pulp is damaged. Dentists only prescribe a root canal in cases where the decay has already caused or is likely to cause permanent damage to the tooth.

The main goal of this procedure is to remove the damaged nerve and pulp. Once the inside of the tooth is clean, it is then sealed. This allows dentists to remove the damaged parts of the tooth while saving the tooth itself. It is considered as a conservative treatment compared to other options, such as total tooth extraction and replacement with a denture.

Root canal is a completely safe and proven dental procedure. Since nerves in the teeth serve only the vital function of causing the teeth to grow and emerge from the gums, they can be safely removed especially if they become vulnerable to infection. However, since they play a sensory role, specifically to help you identify between hot and cold, removing them may cause some heat and cold sensitivity; it will not, however, affect the main function of the tooth – which is to chew and break down food.

Despite being quite common and safe, root canal has earned the reputation of being quite painful. However, patients report that the procedure itself is not painful; it is actually the damaged nerve and pulp that cause some pain.

Why You Need A Root Canal

A root canal procedure can help protect you from potential risks and complications posed by decayed teeth. A decayed tooth may cause an abscess to form in the dental pulp, and if left untreated, it may allow bacteria to spread to otherwise healthy teeth or even from the mouth to other parts of the body. Other possible complications that can spring from an abscess or an infection include:

  • Swelling
  • Bone loss
  • Drainage problems, or when a hole is formed on the side of a tooth, through which some drainage can go into the gums or the cheek

There are, however, some cases wherein the decay is too severe that a root canal can no longer save the tooth. In such cases, you may opt for an extraction, or complete removal of the affected tooth. If you are not comfortable leaving the space empty, you can have a bridge or denture made.

What Happens During A Root Canal

During a root canal procedure, your dentist will first numb your gums using a substance that resembles jelly. Once numb, local anesthesia will be administered to number the teeth, gums, tongue, and skin around the mouth.

To isolate the damaged tooth, your dentist will use a sheet of rubber with a metal frame. This also prevents any debris from entering your throat. Once the site is ready, he will proceed by removing the pulp from the tooth’s center, and then goes on to remove the nerve. He then fills up the pulp cavity with medicines, a temporary filling, and a root canal filling to ensure that it will not be prone to infection, which can spread and affect adjacent teeth.

In some cases, the damaged tooth may require a crown. Since the tooth is now empty inside, it becomes fragile and may be prone to breaking or chipping. A crown or cap can help prevent these from happening. If your dentist prescribes a crown, he will take an impression of the tooth and will have it manufactured by a dental technician. If this is true for your case, your dentist will ask you to come back for another visit to install the crown.

Recovering from A Root Canal

If you have had a root canal procedure performed, you will feel some numbness around your mouth and gums for a few hours until the anesthesia wears off. Once that happens, you will feel some throbbing pain; this is why your dentist will prescribe some pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. If the pain is bothering you or seems intense, you may ask for a stronger pain medication. Make sure, however, to follow all instructions on the label while taking pain medications.

You will likely need to take the pain medication for a couple of days, after which the pain is expected to subside. Once the pain wears off, you will have fully recovered from the procedure. You will only need to go back to your dentist for the placement of a crown (if necessary) or to have your crown repaired or redone in case it comes loose.

Root canals currently have a 95% success rate.

When Should You See An Endodontist?

There are some key symptoms that will tell you that a root canal therapy is necessary and should thus prompt you to see an endodontist. These include:

  • Severe toothache
  • Severe pain when pressure is applied to the tooth
  • Prolonged sensitivity or when the tooth still feels sensitive even after the hot or cold sensation is removed
  • Darkening of the tooth
  • Swelling in the gums
  • Tender gums
  • Persistent pimples on the gums
  • Recurring pimples on the gums

There are cases, however, where a decayed tooth shows no symptoms. Thus, it is important to visit your dentist regularly for a cleaning and a general checkup.

References:

  • Yildirim C. (2012). “Current approach to root canal irrigants.” Gulhane Medical Journal.
  • Zehnder M. (2006). “Root canal irrigants.” Journal of Endodontics.
  • Baroudi K, Kazkaz M, Sakka S, Tarakji B. “Morphology of root canals in lower human premolars.” Nigerian Medical Journal.
  • Carrote P. (2004). “Endodontics: Part 2 Diagnosis and treatment planning.” British Dental Journal.
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