Root canal. The most dreaded phrase in all of dentistry. While I think root canals get a little bit of bad rap. they definitely aren’t how anyone would like to spend a day. Root canals themselves aren’t generally painful once you’re numb but the pain that comes before you need one is what everyone associates with them. So what exactly is a root canal and when do you need one?
There are a couple of different situations in which a tooth needs a root canal…
- Tooth decay extends into the nerve space – Once the nerve has been exposed, it is very unlikely to recover on it’s own.
- The nerve is in the process of dying (very painful) – Every time a tooth is traumatized (from bumps or dental work) it pushes it a little more towards dying. When the nerve starts to die it usually causes severe sensitivity to hot and cold as well as a constant throbbing pain that is bad enough to wake you up at night.
- The nerve is dead – The final stage the nerve gets to is when it dies. When it dies all of the tissue inside the tooth starts to become infected which eventually leads to a dental abscess. If the infection gets out of control you can get swelling and pain in the area. In very rare cases the infection can spread to other parts of the body. Antibiotics can help reduce some of these symptoms but they will come back unless a root canal is done to remove all of the infected tissue inside the tooth.
During a root canal the dentist or endodontist (root canal specialist) cleans out the entire nerve space of the tooth with several sets of metal files. She or he then rinses out the inside of the tooth with several different solutions including sodium hypochlorite (bleach), chlorhexidine, and/or EDTA. After the entire space has been cleaned it is filled in with a plastic type material known as gutta percha.
After a root canal you can expect the tooth to be somewhat sore. This soreness can be be very limited while other times it lasts for several months. Additionally after a root canal, the tooth usually ends up needing a crown on it. The root canal severely weakens the tooth and it has a relatively high risk of breaking catastrophically. If you do get a root canal and your dentist recommends a crown, make sure you get that done within a couple of months or you will have wasted all the money you spent on the root canal.