When most people hear the words “root canal”, they typically
think of a major dental procedure that is both scary and painful. In actuality,
a root canal is an extremely routine and common procedure that can be performed
with ease by a skilled endodontist. While the idea of a root canal
may be daunting, the procedure itself can be virtually pain-free, and each
year, millions of smiles are saved by this simple procedure that can stop or
prevent the advancement of tooth decay.

If you have never had a root canal, there’s a chance you may
not have a clear idea of what the procedure entails or what to expect after a
root canal. Let’s explore exactly how a root canal can save a damaged tooth,
preserve your smile, and promote overall oral health.

Why Might You Need a Root Canal?

Contrary to common beliefs, the pain that is associated with a
root canal actually precedes the procedure entirely. If your dentist has
recommended a root canal, it is because the inner layer of your tooth has
become inflamed, damaged, or infected. If left untreated, such damage can
potentially lead to tooth decay. Pain can be a common symptom of a more
advanced stage of damage to the tooth, but the tooth may begin to hurt right
away. In some cases, there may not even be any pain at all, which is why
routine dental examinations are necessary for preventing and assessing
potential issues.

Beneath your tooth’s enamel is a soft inner layer known as the
dental pulp. This spongy tissue contains the nerves, blood vessels, and
connective tissues that nourish the tooth during development. The term to
describe the procedure, “root canal”, is actually derived from the canals
within your tooth that travel from the root into the “pulp chamber”, so that
the blood vessels can nourish the tooth. Your tooth’s nerve is purely
sensory–it is not vital to the health of the tooth–but in alerting you when something
is too hot or too cold, the pain experienced in the nerve can also alert you to
a problem.

When the pulp is damaged, the nerve breaks down and bacteria
accumulates. This,coupled with debris from the broken down nerve (as well as
external particles if your tooth is cracked), can cause an infection or an
abscessed tooth. Infections can cause:

Swelling in the gum that may spread to other parts of
the face

Bone loss around the end of the root

Drainage problems with infected fluid building up in
the root

Tooth decay.

There are many different ways the pulp of your tooth can become
damaged, and it is important to be cognizant of any duress or trauma your face
and mouth might be under. If you have experienced one of the following, consult
with your dentist right away.

Repeated dental procedures on the same tooth that can
weaken the enamel

An ill-fitting crown or filling that cracks the tooth
or exposes spaces in the tooth

A fractured tooth

Trauma to the face that loosens or breaks the tooth

Untreated cavities that spread into the pulp of the

Root canal therapy cannot reverse the damage to your tooth, but
if performed early enough, it can easily and effectively save your tooth by
alleviating the symptoms and preventing further damage.

What is a Root Canal?

Endodontists are the dental professionals that
specialize in the treatment and repair of the tooth’s inner layer–the dental
pulp. Once a dentist has determined you need a root canal, they may perform the
procedure themselves or refer you to a specialist. Some dental practices even
have an endodontist on staff. You and your dentist will discuss
your options and decide whether or not your root canal should be performed by
your general dentist or an endodontist, depending on the level of damage to the

X-rays are taken prior to the procedure to examine the inside
of the tooth and determine the extent of the damage, particularly to see if
there’s any sign of infection in the surrounding bone. Your dentist or
endodontist will then anesthetize the surrounding area for your
comfort. A root canal may take multiple appointments to complete.

The point of the root canal procedure is to remove the dental
pulp, clean the inside of the tooth, then fill and seal the area. A rubber-like
material called gutta-percha is used to seal the tooth, which is then restored
with a crown or filling for added protection. In order to remove the dental
pulp, the endodontist must drill a hole into the crown of the tooth for access.
Delicate instruments called root canal files are then used to remove the dental
pulp and scrape the walls of the pulp chamber to clean and shape the space for
filling. Throughout the procedure, the endodontist will flush the tooth with
water or a gentle sodium solution to clear away debris.

Once the pulp is removed, the root canals are sealed with
gutta-percha. If there are signs of infection, medication may be applied to the
inside of the tooth and your endodontist may wait until the second session to
fill the root canals in order to ensure the infection has healed. In this case,
a temporary filling will be used to protect the area until your next

After the root canals are sealed with gutta-percha, the final
appointment entails having a crown or other restoration
placed on the tooth to restore it to its full functionality. In some cases, if
damage to the tooth has been too extensive, or the hollowed-out tooth lacks the
proper structure to function on its own, the endodontist may place a post
inside the tooth to reinforce it before crowning it. In almost all cases, a
tooth that has undergone endodontic treatment can function just as well as it
did prior to the damage.

After Your Root Canal

You may be surprised to learn that after a root canal
procedure, most people report feeling a great sense of relief. The pain associated
with root canal therapy comes from the inflammation and discomfort of the
infected tissue, so once that is removed, most pain should be alleviated. As
with any dental procedure, there will be some tenderness immediately following
the root canal, and this may persist for another day or two. Your tooth may
also be a bit sensitive to extreme temperatures (though less so than when the
tooth was damaged). This is especially true between sessions, when your tooth
is capped by a temporary crown and not fully sealed.

In cases where the damage to the tooth was severe and the
patient experienced extreme pain, the area will be a bit more sensitive for a
few days longer following the procedure. This, however, can be treated with
over-the-counter pain medications. If necessary, your dentist may prescribe a
painkiller, but pain on that level following a root canal is rare.

The severe toothache, swelling, and prolonged sensitivity to
extreme temperatures goes away once the procedure is performed. Most people can
return to normal activities after the first day. It is important, however, to
remember to take extra care between sessions. While the temporary filling is in
place after the first appointment, you should avoid chewing on the tooth, and
be careful not to expose it to too much duress. This is important to avoid
contaminating the tooth or damaging the area while it is still under repair.

Once the tooth is fully restored, you can brush and floss as
you regularly would. Overall, the procedure is highly effective, minimally
painful, and is an important step to ensuring the health and longevity of your
smile. There are many who would say its as easy as having a tooth filled!