A root canal is a procedure that is performed to eliminate pain and remove damage but save the tooth. Inflamed or infected pulp inside a tooth is almost always uncomfortable and can lead to eventual tooth loss, damage to the bone surrounding the tooth, and extensive infection if it is not treated. Even though the procedure may sound invasive and frightening, a root canal is similar in many ways to having a filling replaced. Root canals can usually be completed in a single appointment with a possible follow-up to examine and seal the tooth.
Diagnosing a Damaged Tooth
In some instances, a problem is obvious because of the pain and infection surrounding the tooth, but not always. The need for a root canal procedure may only be realized during an annual exam. There may be a darkening in the tooth the patient had not noticed or redness around the gums, or the patient may complain of sensitivity, but not necessarily pain. An x-ray will be scheduled to look at the extent of the damage and confirm the need for the root canal. If an abscess has formed, the patient may be required to be on antibiotics for a few days prior to the procedure to reduce the swelling. The dental office will also need to be aware of any medications the patient is currently taking or any medical conditions prior to scheduling the procedure.
How the Procedure is Performed
When a tooth becomes damaged, the softer inner filling of a tooth, known as the pulp, will become inflamed and irritate the nerves in the canal. This is the source of pain. The dentist will access the root chamber and remove the pulp and any damaged nerve tissue. They will completely clean out the interior of the tooth and disinfect it to eliminate any risk of infection. The tooth will then be sealed once all infection is cleared. This could take place immediately after the pulp has been removed or it may need to wait a week or two if too much infection was present. In this instance, the patient may need to take antibiotics or medication may be applied directly into the tooth. Once a follow-up appointment confirms the infection is gone, the tooth will be sealed.
How a Tooth is Sealed
In most root canal procedures, a dental paste is used inside the canal and the interior of the tooth, filling any open area. It will harden and create a cement like a filling that helps to strengthen the hollowed out tooth. A filling will be placed over the access point to prevent any debris or bacteria from getting inside and causing another infection. Additional protection over the tooth may be needed if it is still fragile. Another appointment may be scheduled to install a crown or whatever is planned for capping and protecting the tooth.
Recovery After the Procedure
Following a root canal treatment, there will probably be some swelling and discomfort around the affected tooth. The level of swelling often depends on how badly infected the area was prior to the procedure. If the tooth is still at risk and a crown is needed, it is important to avoid chewing on that side until after the work is complete and the tooth is sealed. Most patients, following their appointments, are able to get adequate relief from any pain by taking over-the-counter pain relievers for a day or two. There are no other restrictions regarding physical activity, and most people are able to be back to their normal schedules the following day.
Patients who are nervous about undergoing this type of care because they are concerned with the pain they may feel during or after the procedure should be relieved to know that those worries are unfounded. During the procedure, a local anesthetic is applied so patients are always kept comfortable. Following the root canal, the pain is generally minor and is often much less than the level of pain associated with a decayed and infected tooth.