What is root canal therapy? It’s a procedure used to treat problems of the tooth’s dental pulp, or soft core. This core contains nerves, blood vessels, and connective tissue. At one time, teeth with abscessed, or infected, nerves were removed. Now, in 95 percent of cases of pulpal infection, the natural tooth can be saved with root canal therapy. Therapy usually requires one to three appointments. Without treatment, the infection of the dental pulp can spread to the bone around the tooth, making it unable to hold the tooth in place and causing pain and swelling.
The most common causes of pulpal nerve damage are:
Physical irritation generally brought on by deep tooth decay (a cavity) that reaches down to the nerve or through deep fillings. This allows harmful bacteria to reach the pulp (commonly called the nerve), resulting in infection and decay.
Trauma, such as a blow to a tooth or the jaw, that damages sensitive nerve tissue within the tooth
A fractured or cracked tooth that involves the pulp
The signs and symptoms of pulpal nerve damage can vary from person to person. The most common ones include:
Pain in the tooth when biting down
Tooth pain while chewing
Oversensitivity of the teeth with hot or cold drinks
Gum or facial swelling
These signs and symptoms may resemble other oral health conditions. Consult with your dentist for an accurate diagnosis.
Treatment begins with an injection of local anesthetic to numb the affected area. The tooth crown, or top, is opened to expose the pulpal tissue so that it can be removed. The area surrounding and containing the pulpal tissue is carefully cleaned, enlarged, and shaped so that a permanent filler can be used to prevent any further infection and discomfort. After filling, an artificial crown, or sometimes a fillling, is made to complete the restoration of the natural tooth.
The procedure may be spread over more than one visit if there is swelling to ensure that the infected pulp and any bacteria have been adequately drained. Soft-tissue inflammation around the tooth may cause some discomfort in the days following surgery. An over-the-counter analgesic may help and your dentist may prescribe an antibiotic.
If you continue to care for your teeth and gums and get regular checkups, your treated tooth could last a lifetime. Some teeth may require a crown (or cap) to further protect it. Until the crown is placed, avoid using it to chew hard foods.
“Root Canals.” Mouth Healthy, American Dental Association. http://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/r/root-canals. Accessed 2013.
“What Is a Root Canal?” Know Your Teeth, Academy of General Dentistry, January 2012. http://www.knowyourteeth.com/infobites/abc/article/?abc=W&iid=326&aid=1310. Accessed 2013.
“What Causes a Toothache?” Know Your Teeth, Academy of General Dentistry, January 2012. http://www.knowyourteeth.com/infobites/abc/article/?abc=W&iid=337&aid=1362. Accessed 2013.