Root canal treatment or root canal therapy is a procedure in which the inner tissues, known as pulp, are removed from within your tooth roots. Root canals are used when the tooth root becomes infected or abscessed. Though the procedure has a reputation for being painful, modern anesthetics allow root canals to be performed without pain. In fact, a root canal can alleviate the pain that you’re experiencing due to an abscess or badly decayed tooth.
Root canals can be performed by general dentists, but if your tooth roots are abnormally shaped or your condition is severe, your dentist may refer you to an endodontist for the procedure. An endodontist is a dental specialist whose focus is on root canal therapy.
Signs of Needing a Root Canal
An abscess occurs when the tooth roots and the tissues surrounding them become infected. A pocket of pus develops as your body sends white blood cells to the infected area in order to fight off the oral bacteria that are causing the infection. The abscess puts pressure on the nerves running through your tooth root, and it also erodes away your tooth tissue. If left untreated, an abscess can lead to tooth loss, and the infection can spread into your jaw bone, blood, or even brain tissue. In rare cases, untreated dental abscesses can even be deadly. Root canal treatment often allows an abscessed tooth to be saved and also prevents these other unwanted consequences of an abscess.
Signs you may have a dental abscess include:
- Pain in or around the tooth. This pain may be sharp and searing or more of a dull ache.
- Extreme, prolonged sensitivity to hot and cold foods and beverages.
- Discomfort on one side of the mouth when you bite or chew.
- Swelling in the lymph nodes to either side of your jaw.
- Fever and the chills.
- Appearance of a pimple-like pus pocket on your gums near the base of a tooth.
Some patients experience all of the symptoms above, while others only experience a few. In rare cases, you may not have any symptoms of a dental abscess, but your dentist may detect on in its early stages during a dental exam. If you are experiencing the symptoms above or your dentist suspects you may have an abscess, he or she will take x-rays of your jaw to locate and confirm the abscess, and also to measure its extent.
Root Canal Procedure Time
Once your dentist has taken x-rays of your tooth and has had the chance to evaluate them, he or she will schedule you for a root canal treatment. You may be asked to take antibiotics for several days before the procedure. The antibiotics will help your body fight off the infection, making the anesthetics used prior to the root canal more effective and also reducing your pain in the days leading up to the treatment.
When you arrive for your root canal, your dentist will begin by injecting a local anesthetic, such as lidocaine, into the nerve near the abscessed tooth. Within a few minutes, the area will go numb. Then, your dentist may apply a sheet of foam or plastic over the tooth in order to isolate it from the other teeth. He or she may also place some cotton rolls in your mouth to absorb saliva and keep the work area dry.
Next, your dentist will use a drill to create an opening in the center of your tooth. You may feel some vibrations, just as you would when having a cavity filled, but you should not feel any pain. If you do feel a tinge of pain, let your dentist know; he or she can administer additional anesthetic to keep you comfortable.
The access hole will be made deep enough to allow your dentist to access the soft tissues within the roots of your tooth. Once this depth is achieved, your dentist will use special tools to scrape and remove the tooth pulp from the roots. Then, a sanitizing solution will be used to kill any lingering bacteria. Finally, your dentist will use an rubber-like material to fill the now-empty tooth roots. The access hole will then be filled with composite resin or metal amalgam, much like a cavity would be filled.
Usually, once a root canal is complete, your dentist will cover your tooth with a temporary crown. You’ll return for a second appointment a week or two later to have a permanent crown put in place. This crown will protect your weakened tooth from cracks, additional decay, and other types of damage.
What to Expect After a Root Canal
Recovering from a root canal is simple. If you have a temporary crown in place, you will need to avoid eating overly sticky or crunchy foods until you have the permanent crown put into place. You should not feel any overt pain during recovery. Some people have some slight sensitivity to heat or cold, which may occur in the teeth surrounding the tooth that was treated. This should subside within a week or two; using sensitivity toothpaste can help. You may need to continue to take antibiotics for several days after a root canal. This will help your body fight off any bacteria remaining in the gum and bone tissues surrounding the tooth. Make sure you take the antibiotics for as long as your dentist recommends, even if your pain subsides long before they are gone.
You care for a tooth that has been treated with a root canal just as you would care for any other tooth. Brush and floss around it regularly, and visit your dentist for regular checkups. Your dentist will take x-rays on a regular basis to ensure the tooth underneath the crown is still in good shape. Many people can keep a tooth that has been treated with a root canal in their mouths for the rest of their lives. However, if additional decay appears, you might need to have the tooth extracted and replaced with an implant.
Preventing Future Root Canal Procedures
Abscesses that lead to a need for root canal treatment often begin as tooth decay or gum disease. The same oral bacteria cause tooth decay, gum disease, and dental abscesses. Good oral hygiene can reduce the risk of all three problems. Some ways to prevent the need for future root canals include:
Good Brushing and Flossing Habits
Proper brushing and flossing habits keep bacteria at bay, helping to prevent decay and gum disease that could later lead to an abscess. Brush twice a day for at least two minutes, using a soft toothbrush and anti-cavity toothpaste. Make sure you floss daily, being careful to make a complete “c” around both sides of each tooth. Try packing floss in your car or purse so you can floss on-the-go if you forget to do so at home.
Regular Dental Exams
Make sure you see your dentist for regular checkups twice a year, or as recommended by your dentist. This ensures that if you do develop any gum disease or tooth decay, it is detected early on when it can be addressed with better oral hygiene or fillings before an abscess develops.
If you do notice any signs of gum disease or tooth decay, see your dentist for treatment promptly. The longer these conditions are allowed to progress unaddressed, the greater the chances you’ll develop an abscess. Signs of cavities include lingering bad breath, sensitivity to heat, cold, and pressure, a black or brown spot on the tooth, and aching tooth pain. Signs of gum disease include redness in the gums, increased gum sensitivity, bleeding after brushing or flossing, and pockets forming between the gums and teeth.