Root Canal- Likely the most feared of all procedures. The name alone brings up visions of pain, discomfort and dental woes. But what is a root canal? Why would you need one? What does it do? In this article, we will shed some light on the world of endodontics, dental subspecialty that encompasses root canals. Contrary to popular belief, you will find that this procedure is both comfortable and provides near instant pain relief!

A Diagram of the different parts of the tooth. 

A Diagram of the different parts of the tooth. 

Before explaining how a root canal works, it is important to understand the different parts of the tooth and what they do. There are three basic layers to all teeth- the enamel, the dentin and the nerve/pulp. The enamel is mostly inorganic (nonliving) material and gives the tooth its strength and rigidity (it’s the hardest material in the human body!). Dentin provides support to the enamel and contains a mix of living and nonliving materials. The innermost layer is the pulp chamber and nerve canal. This space contains innervation that provides information on biting pressure, temperature and pain to the central nervous system. It is mostly organic material and has has it’s own blood supply.

Different teeth will have different numbers of canals. The number varies between tooth types, arch location and even person to person. In general, teeth typically have between one and four canals, with posterior teeth having more than anteriors. On top of this, a tooth can have any number of accessory canals.These can range in size from easily visible to microscopic.

With this information in mind, let’s discuss root canals. In the most basic terms, a root canal is performed by removing the root/nerve from the tooth, cleaning out the now-empty space and filling it with a stable material. Why would we remove the nerve from a tooth? This is typically done because:

A) Long term decay, stress or fracture has aggravated the nerve and it is causing constant pain. This is what happening when patients come in with a “hot tooth.”

B) The aggravated nerve has now “died,” leaving a perfect alcove of organic material for bacteria to feed on. Here, patients might have very little feeling in the tooth and may notice a change in color to a grayish hue.

C) Bacteria have found the dead tissue and there is an active infection. The bacterial abscess can be seen on an X-Ray and the patient will feel soreness, swelling or even draining from the gum tissue.

Condition A will eventually progress to condition B and usually to condition C. Since active infections are both difficult to treat and potentially life threatening, we will usually treat dying nerves early-on and aggressively. Waiting can often lead to more pain and higher long term costs to our patients.

The actual root canal procedure is based on a simple ideology: If you remove the dying/dead nerve, you remove the source of pain and bacterial “food.” We start by getting you numb using standard dental anesthesia.  You should not be able to feel any part of this procedure, from start to finish. The tooth is then isolated using a dental dam to keep your saliva and the inner tooth completely separated. We access the tooth canal and begin clean out the canal. We use a system of specialized files to shape and clean the canal, along with a number of sterilizing irrigants to eliminate any bacteria. Once the canal is the right size and shape (confirmed via X-Ray), we fill it with a material called gutta percha. Modern gutta percha is engineered in a lab, and is extremely resistant to deterioration, infection or absorption.

Tooth Second from left- Before and after root canal. The gutta percha shows up bright white in the X-Ray, highlighting the shape of the canal.

Tooth Second from left- Before and after root canal. The gutta percha shows up bright white in the X-Ray, highlighting the shape of the canal.

Once the canal is filled, it is topped of with a filling to give the tooth structure. This final step may be done the same day as the canal filling or may be delayed to allow the tooth time to adjust to the procedure. Most of the time, the tooth will require a crown to give it long term structural stability and strength. Removing the nerve from teeth can make them more brittle, and the capping effect of a crown can help counteract this.

After the nerve is removed from the tooth, it physically cannot feel any more pain. The surrounding tissues can still feel tender, but the specific tooth will no longer have a way to relate sensory information to the brain. This is what makes root canals great at ending tooth pain permanently and instantly.

Overall, root canals are about 80% successful long term. They are an excellent way of buying time with a tooth that would otherwise need to be extracted and replaced with an implant or dentures. At our office, we evaluate root canals on a patient-to-patient basis. If we feel your specific case could benefit from the perspective of a specialist, we will refer you to an endodontist. These tooth canal experts bring a number of technologies to handle complex or difficult cases, including microscopes, CT Scanners and cutting edge materials.

If you have further questions on root canals or why we place them, please contact our office. We understand that this procedure seems intimidating, and will try our best to make it more manageable. As with any procedure provided at our office, we want you to be happy, pain-free, and satisfied with the end result!