A month ago, my 60 year old father asked me what a root canal is. He had about 13 root canals done before asking me this question. Three days ago, my 20 year old patient asked me what a root canal is as he was about to get one. It was at this point where I thought I should probably make a FAQ about what a root canal involves.

What is a root canal?

A root canal is a term which describes the natural cavity within the center of the tooth. The pulp or pulp chamber is the soft area within the root canal, which in turn contains the tooth’s nerve. The nerve is important to the health of the tooth and is the reason we sometimes feel the sensation of hot or cold, which can unfortunately lead to PAIN.

Why is it important to have a root canal?

Root canal treatment is provided to save a tooth that has become infected or is badly decayed. When other treatment options such as a filling, onlay or crown are not sufficient, a root canal will be performed.

In the root canal procedure, the nerve and pulp are removed from the canal, which is then cleaned and sealed. Sealing the canal prevents bacteria from entering and causing gum tissue damage. Should decay be allowed to continue, the surrounding gum tissue will be affected and a tooth abscess may occur. If the decay extends too far, the tooth may not be savable and the tooth will need to be extracted.

An abscess is a pus-filled pocket that forms at the end of the roots of the tooth. Understandably, an abscess or infection causes the patient intense pain.
Sometimes, a patient needing root canal treatment may experience no pain whatsoever. There are instances where a dental exam uncovers a crack or fracture that has allowed bacteria to settle into the root.

How do I know if I need a root canal?

Most patients do experience some sort of symptom that will alert them to the problem. Such symptoms may include:

  • Severe pain in a tooth when chewing or applying pressure
  • Sensitivity to hot and cold temperatures that does not lessen soon after the hot or cold has been removed
  • Swollen or tender gums
  • Recurring or persistent pimple on the gums
  • Darkening of the tooth

What will happen during the procedure?

The root canal procedure typically requires one to two visits to the dentist. Some dentists will refer the patient to the endodontist for the procedure. The root canal procedure may take up to 90 minutes to complete. After the root canal procedure, the dentist will typically place a temporary crown over the affected tooth, as this will restore natural tooth appearance and strength for chewing. Typically, a tooth that requires a root canal has extensive damage and a good portion of the tooth has likely been removed. Therefore, a crown or “cap” may be placed to maintain strength of the tooth. The dentist will then order a permanent crown to be made, which takes approximately two weeks.

What will happen afterwards?

Your tooth may feel sensitive for a few days, but any discomfort can usually be relieved with over-the-counter pain medication or anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen/advil. You will be instructed to avoid chewing on that tooth until it receives its permanent filling, which can be placed a few days later. Depending on how damaged the tooth was to begin with, it may need a full-coverage crown. We will discuss your options with you.

How can I avoid the need for root canal treatment in the future?

Keep your teeth decay-free by brushing and flossing every day. Eat a healthy diet low in sugar and avoid acidic beverages such as soda. Come into the dental office regularly for professional cleanings and exams. And if you’re active in sports, consider ordering a custom-made mouthguard to protect your teeth from injury.

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