Root canal treatment, also known as endodontic treatment, is a dental procedure in which the diseased or damaged pulp (core) of a tooth is removed and the inside areas (the pulp chamber and root canals) are filled and sealed.
Inflamed or infected pulp (pulpitis) most often causes a toothache. To relieve the pain and prevent further complications, the tooth may be extracted (surgically removed) or saved by root canal treatment. Root canal treatment has become a common dental procedure; more than 14 million are performed every year, with a 95% success rate, according to the American Association of Endodontists.
Inside the tooth, the pulp's soft tissue contains the blood supply, by which the tooth gets its nutrients, and the nerve, by which the tooth senses hot and cold. This tissue is vulnerable to damage from deep dental decay, accidental injury, tooth fracture, or trauma from repeated dental procedures (such as multiple fillings over time). If a tooth becomes diseased or injured, bacteria build up inside the pulp, spreading infection from the natural crown of the tooth to the root tips in the jawbone. Pus accumulates at the ends of the roots, forming a painful abscess which can damage the bone supporting the teeth.
Such an infection may produce pain that is severe, constant or throbbing, as well as prolonged sensitivity to heat or cold, swelling and tenderness in the surrounding gums, facial swelling, and discoloration of the tooth. However, in some cases, the pulp may die so gradually that there is little noticeable pain.
Root canal treatment is performed under local anesthesia. A thin sheet of rubber, called a rubber dam, is placed in the mouth to isolate the tooth. The dentist removes any tooth decay and makes an opening through the natural crown of the tooth into the pulp chamber. Creating this access also relieves the pressure inside the tooth and can dramatically ease pain.
The dentist determines the length of the root canals, usually with a series of x-rays. Small wire-like files are then used to clean the entire canal space of diseased pulp tissue and bacteria. The debris is flushed out with large amounts of water (irrigation). The canals are also slightly enlarged and shaped to receive an inert (non-reactive) filling material called gutta percha. However, the tooth is not filled and permanently sealed until it is completely free of active infection. The dentist may place a temporary seal, or leave the tooth open to drain, and prescribe an antibiotic to counter any spread of infection from the tooth. This is why root canal treatment may require several visits to the dentist.
Once the canals are completely clean, they are filled with gutta percha and a sealer cement to prevent bacteria from entering the tooth in the future. A metal post may be placed in the pulp chamber for added structural support and better retention of the crown restoration. The tooth is protected by a temporary filling or crown until a permanent restoration may be made. This restoration is usually a gold or porcelain crown, although it may be a gold inlay, or an amalgam or composite filling (paste fillings that harden).
There is no typical preparation for root canal treatment. Once the tooth is opened to drain, the dentist may prescribe an antibiotic, then the patient should take the full prescribed course. With the infection under control, local anesthetic is more effective, so that the root canal procedure may be performed without discomfort.
The tooth may be sore for several days after filling. Pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) may be taken to ease the soreness. The tissues around the tooth may also be irritated. Rinsing the mouth with hot salt water several times a day will help. Chewing on that side of the mouth should be avoided for the first few days following treatment. A follow-up appointment should be scheduled with the dentist for six months after treatment to make sure the tooth and surrounding structures are healthy.
With successful root canal treatment, the tooth will no longer cause pain. However, because it does not contain an internal nerve, it no longer has sensitivity to hot, cold, or sweets. These are signs of dental decay, so the patient must receive regular dental check-ups with periodic x-rays to avoid further disease in the tooth. The restored tooth could last a lifetime; however, with routine wear, the filling or crown may eventually need to be replaced.