What is a Root Canal?
Root canal treatment is the removal of the tooth’s pulp, a small, thread-like tissue in the center of the tooth. Once the damaged, diseased or dead pulp is removed, the remaining space is cleaned, shaped and filled. This procedure seals off the root canal. Years ago, teeth with diseased or injured pulps were removed. Today, root canal treatment saves many teeth that would otherwise be lost.The most common causes of pulp damage or death are
- A cracked tooth
- A deep cavity
Why Would You Need Root Canal Treatment?
Root canal treatment is needed for two main reasons: infection or irreversible damage to the pulp. An untreated cavity is a common cause of pulp infection. The decay erodes the enamel and dentin of the tooth until it opens into the root canal system, allowing bacteria to infect the pulp. Infections inside teeth don’t respond to antibiotic treatment. The inflammation caused by the infection restricts the tooth’s blood supply, so antibiotics in the bloodstream can’t reach the infection very well. The reduced blood supply also limits the pulp’s ability to heal itself.
The pulp also can become damaged from trauma, a fracture or extensive restorative work, such as several fillings placed over a period of time. Sometimes, a common dental procedure can cause the pulp to become inflamed. For example, preparing a tooth for a crown sometimes leads to the need for root canal treatment.
In many cases, when the pulp is inflamed, but not infected, it will heal and return to normal. Your dentist may want to monitor the tooth to see if this happens before doing root canal treatment. Sometimes, though, the pulp remains inflamed, which can cause pain and may lead to infection.
Once the pulp becomes infected, the infection can affect the bone around the tooth, causing an abscess to form. The goal of root canal treatment is to save the tooth by removing the infected or damaged pulp, treating any infection, and filling the empty canals with an inert material. If root canal treatment is not done, the tooth may have to be extracted.
It is better to keep your natural teeth if at all possible. If a tooth is missing, neighboring teeth can drift out of line and can be overstressed. Keeping your natural teeth also helps you to avoid more expensive and extensive treatments, such as implants or bridges. If an infected or injured tooth that needs root canal treatment is ignored, not only can you lose the tooth, but also the infection can spread to other parts of your body.
Having endodontic treatment on a tooth does not mean that you’ll need to have it pulled out in a few years. The reason for doing root canal treatment is often a large cavity. The tooth often is weakened, but if the tooth is covered with a crown after the root canal or, in some cases, restored with tooth-colored composite filling material, the tooth can last the rest of your life.
How is a Root Canal Done?
Root canal treatment consists of several steps that take place over several office visits, depending on the situation. These steps are:
- First, an opening is made through the back of a front tooth or the crown of a molar or pre-molar.
- After the diseased pulp is removed (a pulpectomy), the pulp chamber and root canals are cleaned, enlarged and shaped in preparation for being filled.
- If more than one visit is needed, a temporary filling is placed in the crown opening to protect the tooth between dental visits.
- The temporary filling is removed and the pulp chamber and root canal permanently filled. A tapered, rubbery material called gutta-percha is inserted into each of the canals and is often sealed into place with cement. Sometimes a metal or plastic rod is placed in the canal for structural support.
- In the final step, a crown is usually placed over the tooth to restore its natural shape and appearance. If the tooth is very broken down, a post may be required to build it up prior to placing a crown.