Thanks to movies and television, the root canal has taken on the identity of the scariest of all dental procedures, something to be feared and avoided at all costs. That’s a lot of unnecessary anxiety built up around a procedure designed to alleviate—not induce—pain. So just what is a root canal? Why would a person need it? And what does it actually entail?
Anatomy of a Tooth
To understand what a root canal is and why it’s necessary, you first need an idea of what a tooth is actually made of. What we see of our teeth is a shiny, white enamel. This is what you’re brushing and focusing on keeping clean. Underneath this enamel is a hard layer called dentin. Go one layer deeper, and you have the pulp of the tooth. The part of our tooth we see is bone; the pulp is the flesh beneath it. It contains blood vessels, nerves, and connective tissue, and extends down into the roots of your teeth. These are the two prongs that go down below the gum line and keep your teeth anchored in your mouth.
The pulp plays a very important role. When teeth are developing, the pulp works to create the surrounding hard tissues of the tooth—the dentin and enamel (and in the roots, another hard layer known as cementum). Pulp plays a vital role during growth and development of the teeth. However, once a tooth is fully grown, it can survive without the pulp thanks to the nourishment it receives from the surrounding tissue.
Inflammation and Infection
Problems arise when the pulp inside the tooth becomes inflamed or infected. In most cases, this leads to pain, prolonged sensitivity to heat or cold, and tenderness due to touching or chewing. This tenderness can extend to the nearby bone and gum tissue, as well as the lymph nodes.
Many things can cause the pulp to become infected. The most well-known cause is a severe, untreated cavity. In cases where a cavity is ignored, it can worsen, and the decay can extend deep inside the tooth. A crack or chip in the tooth can also lead to infection or inflammation in the pulp. There are also cases where an impact or injury to the tooth leaves no visible cracks or chips, yet still leads to infection or inflammation.
When infection or inflammation occurs, a root canal is needed to save the tooth. A dentist or endodontist will perform the procedure in order to remove the infected or inflamed pulp.
Root Canal Procedure
A root canal typically takes place in two visits, with the majority of the work being performed during the first visit.
To begin, the dentist or endodontist examines and x-rays the tooth, and administers a local anesthetic. After this quick injection, the tooth is numbed, allowing the procedure to continue without causing pain to the patient. A small protective sheet known as a dental dam is used to keep the tooth clean throughout the procedure.
Once the tooth is prepared, the dentist or endodontist makes an opening in the crown of the tooth, typically through the use of a small drill. Once inside, small instruments are used to remove the infected or inflamed pulp from the pulp chamber and root canals where it’s held. Once the pulp is cleaned out and the area is treated, this interior space is shaped to prepare for filling.
A biocompatible material—most often a rubber-like substance known as gutta-percha—is used to fill the space inside the tooth. An adhesive cement is also used in order to seal off the root canals. Finally, a temporary filling is placed on top to close the opening. On your next visit, the temporary filling is removed, and a crown is placed over the top of the tooth.
Your tooth may be sensitive for the first few days after the procedure. Your dental provider will review over-the-counter or prescription medication options to address this discomfort. Once the root canal is complete, your tooth functions as normal. Pain, discomfort, and sensitivity are relieved.
Of course, most patients seek to avoid a root canal in the first place. Preventative dental care is the best way to do this. Contact Smile On Dental Salon & Sleep Apnea Center to schedule a dental appointment in Lakeview, Chicago today.