What Happens When I Get a Root Canal?
We’ve all heard a friend or co-worker say “I’d rather have a root canal than (fill in the blank).” The root canal comparison is used to indicate how much we don’t want to do something. So when a patient asks me to describe the root canal procedure, I feel compelled to assure them that it’s not as bad as they may think. The truth is that, because of modern technology and dentistry techniques available today, a root canal is a nearly painless and routine procedure.
Your dentist might refer you to a specialist – an endodontist – for root canal therapy. Here is a basic overview of why and how a root canal is performed.
Why Is a Root Canal Necessary?
Each tooth has between one and three roots. Dental nerves run up these roots and into the center of the tooth, into the area called the pulp chamber. A tooth’s pulp can become irritated, inflamed, and infected due to deep decay, repeated dental procedures on a tooth, large fillings, a crack or chip in the tooth, or trauma to the face.
The pulp that is damaged breaks down, and allows bacteria to multiply within the pulp chamber. The bacteria and remnants of dying pulp can cause an infection or abscessed tooth. An infection in the root canal of a tooth can also cause uncomfortable swelling in the neck and face as well as bone loss. During root canal therapy, the pulp is removed, and the inside of the tooth is cleaned and sealed.
How Can I Tell if I Need Root Canal Therapy?
Signs that you may need root canal therapy:
- Severe toothache pain upon chewing or application of pressure
- Prolonged sensitivity (pain) to hot or cold temperatures
- Discoloration (darkening) of the tooth
- Swelling and tenderness in nearby gums
- A persistent or a recurring pimple on the gums
Root canal therapy requires one or more office visits. Before starting the surgical procedure, an X-ray will be taken to see the shape of the root canals and determine if there are any signs of infection in the surrounding bone.
First, the tooth and surrounding area are numbed using an anesthetic. A dental dam will be used to isolate it and prevent debris from falling into your mouth as the dentist works.
Next, the endodontist will create a hole through the top of the tooth to access the roots. The pulp and nerves will be removed using a series of tiny files. The tooth will be flushed periodically to keep out bacteria and debris.
After the pulp and nerves are removed from all roots, the empty canals will be sealed. A filling (possibly a temporary one) will be placed in the remainder of the tooth cavity. It’s common to need a dental crown after a root canal procedure. The tooth usually is one that had a large filling or extensive decay or other weakness. A crown will be placed on the tooth to protect it, prevent it from breaking, and restore it to full function.
How Should I Care for My Tooth After Surgery?
Most people find that the root canal therapy relieves the pain that was caused by the infected or damaged tooth. Mild discomfort is common after the anesthesia wears off and can be managed with over the counter pain reliever. The post-surgical pain wears off after a few hours.
Until your root canal procedure is finished, with the permanent filling or crown in place, it’s wise to avoid chewing on the tooth under repair. The tooth is weaker than it was and could easily break. Contact your dental office immediately if the crown or filling becomes loose or falls out.
Remember, healthy teeth make a healthy smile!
Dr. Nishan Halim
Nishan Halim, DMD specializes in adult and pediatric dentistry in his Capitol Hill, Washington DC neighborhood dental center. When treatment plans include specialty work, he coordinates every step with the practitioners you choose from his referral network. Contact Dr. Halim to schedule an appointment.