What is Root Canal Treatment?
Root canal treatment, also known as endodontic treatment, is a dental procedure in which the diseased or damaged pulp (nerves and vessels) of a tooth is removed and the inside areas (the pulp chamber and root canals) are filled and sealed.
When is Root Canal Treatment necessary?
Inflamed or infected pulp (pulpitis) most often causes a toothache. To relieve the pain and prevent further complications, the tooth may be extracted (surgically removed) or saved by root canal treatment. Root canal treatment has become a common dental procedure; more than 14 million are performed every year, with a 95% success rate, according to the American Association of Endodontists.
Once root canal treatment is performed, the patient must have a crown placed over the tooth to protect it, although timing for this can vary from tooth to tooth. The cost of the treatment and the crown may seem expensive. However, replacing an extracted tooth with a fixed bridge, or a removable partial denture, or an implant to maintain the space and restore the chewing function is typically much more expensive. It is usually advisable to maintain the teeth that you have and thus endodontic therapy is a very valuable procedure for patients.
Root canal treatment may be performed by a general dentist or by an endodontist, a dentist who specializes in endodontic (literally “inside of the tooth”) procedures. Inside the tooth, the pulp’s soft tissue contains the blood supply, by which the tooth gets its nutrients, and the nerve, by which the tooth senses hot and cold. This tissue is vulnerable to damage from deep dental decay, accidental injury, tooth fracture, or trauma from repeated dental procedures (such as multiple fillings over time). If a tooth becomes diseased or injured, bacteria build up inside the pulp, spreading infection from the natural crown of the tooth to the root tips in the jawbone. Pus accumulates at the ends of the roots, forming a painful abcess which can damage the bone supporting the teeth. Such an infection may produce pain that is severe, constant, or throbbing, as well as prolonged sensitivity to heat or cold, swelling and tenderness in the surrounding gums, facial swelling, and discoloration of the tooth. However, in some cases, the pulp may die so gradually that there is little noticeable pain.
Root canal treatment is performed under local anesthesia. A thin sheet of rubber, called a rubber dam, is placed in the mouth to isolate the tooth. The dentist removes any tooth decay and makes an opening through the natural crown of the tooth into the pulp chamber. Creating this access also relieves the pressure inside the tooth and can dramatically ease pain.
The dentist determines the length of the root canals, usually with a series of x rays. Small wire-like files are then used to clean the entire canal space of diseased pulp tissue and bacteria. The debris is flushed out with large amounts of water or other fluids (irrigation). The canals are also slightly enlarged and shaped to receive an inert (non-reactive) filling material called ‘gutta percha’. However, the tooth is not filled and permanently sealed until it is completely free of active infection. The dentist may place a temporary seal, or leave the tooth open to drain, and prescribe an antibiotic to counter any spread of infection from the tooth. This is why root canal treatment may require several visits to the dentist.
Once the canals are completely clean, they are filled with gutta percha and a sealer cement to prevent bacteria from entering the tooth in the future. A carbon fibre post may be placed in the pulp chamber for added structural support and better retention of the crown restoration. The tooth is protected by a temporary filling or crown until a permanent restoration may be made. This restoration is usually a gold or porcelain crown, although it may be a gold inlay, or an amalgam or composite filling.
There is no typical preparation for root canal treatment. Once the tooth is opened to drain, the dentist may prescribe an antibiotic, then the patient should take the full prescribed course. With the infection under control, local anesthetic is more effective, so that the root canal procedure may be performed without discomfort.
The tooth may be sore for a few days after filling. Pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) may be taken to ease the soreness. The tissues around the tooth may also be irritated. Rinsing the mouth with hot salt water several times a day will help. Chewing on that side of the mouth should be avoided for the first few days following treatment. A follow-up appointment should be scheduled with the dentist for six months after treatment to make sure the tooth and surrounding structures are healthy.