Undoubtedly everyone has heard some horror story about a root canal. But what is a root canal and why is one needed? Let’s start with good news: advances in dentistry today have made root canal therapy a much better procedure for patients. With that in mind…
A root canal is needed when the inside of the tooth (nerve) has been contaminated with bacteria from either fracture or decay. Sometimes trauma to a tooth can cause the need for a root canal. Contamination of the nerve causes an infection that is called an abscess. An established abscess can be seen on a dental x-ray. It is actually the way a tooth “vents” the infection.
Symptoms that may be experienced with an infected tooth are sensitivity to heat and/or cold, sensitivity to biting, spontaneous aching, or nocturnal waking, and swelling of the area. The root canal horror stories usually come when someone waits until the tooth is really starting to bother them. Most often it’s the painful swollen tooth that causes the root canal to get blamed for being unpleasant; that’s like you getting blamed for a mess when your little brother was the one who did it! As with any infection, the more established it is, the longer it will take to heal. Sometimes the infection can happen slowly over time and give no symptoms at all. However it happens, it is unhealthy to have an infected tooth, especially for those with heart issues or artificial joints.
When a tooth is infected, a root canal is needed to save the tooth; the other treatment option is to extract the tooth. Depending on the condition of the tooth and the prognosis for successful treatment, extraction and tooth replacement with an implant, bridge, or possibly partial may be a better option. We go through all treatment options to determine which is the best for you.
The process for a root canal is simple and is usually done in a few visits for patient comfort. Rushing the healing process can cause pressure buildup resulting in discomfort. After getting numb (or some level of sedation if the patient chooses), the tooth is opened from the top, the inside cleaned by removing the infected pulp, shaped, and medication is sealed inside to take care of the bacteria and infection. At the second visit, the inside of the tooth is cleaned a little more; the tooth is filled with a rubber base material so the canal is solid again. It is usually recommended that a crown be placed on the tooth within six months of a root canal to prevent fracture as a root canal tooth will get brittle over time.
The biggest take away about root canals is that if you’re having symptoms, don’t wait until it’s unbearable! Root canals and the anesthetic/sedation options have come a long way so patients are more comfortable during treatment.