Sometimes the soft core (or dental pulp) of a tooth, which contains the blood vessels, nerves, and other connective tissue, becomes diseased (abscessed) due to decay or cracks. This is a potentially serious condition that can cause pain, sensitivity, and potential damage to the jaw and to your overall health. Symptoms that might indicate pulpal nerve damage include experiencing pain when biting down, sensitivity in the area of the infected tooth, and/or facial swelling. Failure to treat the condition can result in the infection spreading to the bone under the tooth, causing potential tooth loss. In the past, abscessed teeth were often removed, but modern techniques allow your dentist to save them in 95% of cases.
Root canal therapy is one effective method of treating this condition and saving the tooth. A root canal is performed by your dentist or endodontist (root canal specialist) by removing the damaged or diseased pulp from the tooth, cleaning it out thoroughly, and verifying that all infected material has been removed. Then the dentist fills the resulting cavity with a material that prevents further infection, and covers the opening with a filling or dental crown. The procedure requires at least two dental visits, and sometimes more.
What can you expect if you need a root canal?
On your first visit, the dentist will first numb the area using a local anesthetic, and then remove part of the crown of the tooth to expose the infected area. To protect the tooth from bacteria in your saliva during the procedure, the dentist may place a rubber dam around the tooth that is being treated. Then the area is carefully cleaned to remove all infected tissue, and to prepare a clean surface for the filling. A temporary filling is usually used during the first visit, to provide time in which to make sure that all abscessed material and bacteria have been removed. In follow-up visits, if there are no signs of remaining infection, the dentist fills the cavity with a permanent filling, and may fit the tooth with a crown.
Because root canals are effectively oral surgery, there may be some residual pain or swelling following the first visit. Your dentist will advise you what to look for in terms of potential complications, and how to treat any discomfort with analgesics (like aspirin) or by applying cold packs or heat to reduce any swelling.
After the crown or permanent filling (depending on how much material was removed from the infected tooth) has been applied, your dentist restores the tooth to its original appearance. At that point it should be almost as strong as a natural tooth.