What Is A Root Canal?

A root canal describes both the anatomy of a tooth and a procedure the dentist uses to treat its inner soft pulp when the latter becomes inflamed or infected. The pulp is the soft tissue inside the hollow root area, or canal, which extends from the top--or crown--of the tooth to the tip of the roots deep in the gum.

The pulp, in turn, contains blood vessels, nerves and connective tissue and helps to create the surrounding hard tissue important for a tooth's early growth and development. Once the tooth matures, however, it can survive without the pulp, because the surrounding tissues nourish and support the tooth.

When the pulp, or soft tissue inside the root canal becomes the victim of decay, repeated fillings or just a crack or chip, it is time for a root canal treatment. Left untreated, the infection can worsen and lead to extreme pain or an abscess.

Signs that a root canal is in your future include pain, continued sensitivity to heat or cold, tenderness, discoloration of the tooth, and swelling and tenderness in the lymph nodes under the jaw and the adjacent bone and gum tissues.

The steps in a root canal treatment

A dentist who specializes in root canal procedures, an endodontist, can usually treat a root canal in one or two visits. The dentist follows these steps:

1. After numbing the area and isolating the tooth with a small protective sheet, the endodontist drills an opening in the crown of the tooth.

2. Using tiny instruments, the endodontist cleans the infected pulp from the pulp chamber and shapes the empty space for a temporary filling.

3. The empty root canals become the new home of a rubber-like, biocompatible material called gutta-percha. To keep the gutta-percha in place, the endodontist applies adhesive cement for complete sealing of the root canals.

4. Normally, the endodontist applies a temporary filling to close the opening on the crown. The filling will be replaced before the final tooth restoration is complete.

The tooth may need a post for root support

If the tooth crown or supporting root lacks sufficient structure to maintain the restoration work, the dentist can place a post inside the tooth. Not all teeth can be saved with a root canal, especially when the roots are severely fractured or the tooth cannot be restored because of excessive bone loss.

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