A root canal is a dental treatment that helps fight and cure infections of the tooth’s innermost soft tissues and nerves.
One of the most anxiety-provoking dental procedures, root canals have a reputation for being painful. But with modern dental techniques, root canal procedures are nothing to fear.
What is a Root Canal?
A root canal is used to treat tooth decay or damage. The goal is to remove infected tissue from inside the tooth and replace it with a filling, crown, or other restoration, so the tooth looks and functions normally again.
A root canal is typically recommended when a tooth's pulp becomes inflamed, infected, or dies from decay. The pulp is the soft tissue in the center of your tooth that contains blood vessels, connective tissues, and nerves.
If you have a painful infection in your tooth, the chances are good that some of this tissue has died. Once a large enough section of pulp becomes infected, it can spread to other parts of your mouth and cause problems.
The dentist treats the damaged pulp during the root canal procedure by opening the tooth and using special tools and techniques to clean out the infection and spare as much healthy pulp as possible.
The procedure is relatively longer and more complicated than other dental treatments, but root canals are typically a successful means of saving a damaged tooth from extraction. If you have an abscess or a severely cracked tooth, a root canal may be necessary to protect your smile.
Your dentist may recommend a root canal if you experience any of these symptoms:
- Sensitivity to temperature
- Sensitivity to light
- Pain when biting down or chewing hard foods
- Pain when opening or closing your mouth
- Red, swollen, or pus-filled gum tissue surrounding the affected tooth
Anatomy of a Tooth
The tooth comprises three basic parts: the crown, neck, and root. The crown is the tooth’s visible part that you brush and floss. It makes up about two-thirds of your tooth's size. The rest of the tooth is below the gum line, in a hard tissue known as the root.
The periodontal ligament delivers blood to the teeth and holds them in place, even if the tooth has no root or pulp left. The pulp is a soft part inside a tooth that contains blood vessels, nerves, connective tissue, and cells that help repair damaged areas. If you have a cavity or a dental problem like an abscess or infection, your dentist will remove the pulp to save your tooth.
The bone supporting your teeth is called the alveolar bone. The process of bone renewal happens at a steady rate throughout life: Bone cells produce new bone as old bone dies off. With tooth loss, new bone can form to support the artificial or implanted teeth that may be used in place of real ones.
How Long Does Root Canal Treatment Take?
Treatment usually takes two to three visits to complete:
- The first visit is used to diagnose the problem and determine the necessary treatment.
- The second visit is the actual procedure, typically lasting 2-4 hours, performed under local anesthesia.
- The third visit, typically scheduled several weeks after the first, is necessary to place a crown, onlay, or filling.
While in the dentist's chair, you will probably be given a local anesthetic, perhaps followed by nitrous oxide gas to help you relax.
The procedure involves three steps:
- Cleaning out the infected pulp chamber. The first step in the root canal procedure is to empty the infected pulp chamber inside the tooth. The dentist will use x-rays to ensure all infected tissue has been removed before proceeding to the second step.
- Clearing out any irritants. Once all infected material has been removed, the dentist will clean out any irritants that remain inside your tooth.
- Sealing off the tooth with a filling or crown. The dentist will place a filling or crown over the tooth to help maintain its shape and protect it from potential damage. Your dentist may also recommend taking antibiotics for up to a month following the procedure to prevent infection.
Root canal surgery generally takes 1-2 hours. Simple root canals may only take 30 minutes, while more complicated cases may take two 90-minute sessions.
You may experience sensitivity and discomfort for up to two weeks following treatment, but discomfort is typically mild and manageable with cold compresses and over-the-counter pain relievers.