Root Canals- What ARE They?

What is Root Canal Treatment?

Your teeth are composed of four different types of tissues: pulp, dentin, enamel, and cementum.  

The pulp, or the innermost portion of a tooth, consists of connective tissue, nerves, and blood vessels, which aid in the development of the tooth. In cases where the pulp becomes badly decayed or infected, a root canal is performed to repair and save the tooth. 

The objective of the treatment is to remove the infected nerve and pulp to prevent a further infectious spread to the surrounding tissue and bone, and prevent the possibility of an abscess from forming.  

After a tooth has fully formed, the nerve is not vital to a tooth’s health and only serves a sensory function- that being, to give the sensation of hot and cold. The absence of the nerve does not change the functionality of the tooth whatsoever.

Why Does Tooth Pulp Need to Be Removed?

When the tooth’s nerve or surrounding pulp tissue becomes damaged, it begins to break down and provide access for bacteria and other decayed debris to multiply within the pulp chamber. This can lead to infection or the abscess of the tooth. An abscess is a pus-filled pocket that forms at the end of the roots of the tooth. Infection that has penetrated to the root canal of a tooth can also cause various other complications such as the swelling of other areas of the face, neck, or head, bone loss around the tip of the root, and drainage problems extending out from the root- this hole can occur through the side of the tooth with drainage into the gums or through the cheek and into the skin.

Signs That a Root Canal is Needed

If you need a root canal, you may notice these signs:

  • *Sharp pain when chewing or biting
  • *Tooth sensitivity that lingers, especially to heat or cold
  • *Pimples on your gums
  • *Swollen or painful gums
  • *Deep decay or darkened gums
  • *Chipped or cracked teeth

It is also important to note that those in need of root canal treatment may not experience any of these signs at all.

The Root Canal Procedure

Before the treatment begins, the dentist will take a “PA”, or an X-ray of the tooth to see the shape and angulation of the root canals and determine if there is evidence of infection that has spread to the surrounding bone. 

When treatment has begun, a local anesthesia will be administered to numb the area around the tooth. To provide a dry, saliva free environment to work in through treatment, a rubber dam will be placed around the tooth. The next step is drilling an access into the tooth. From this point, the dentist or endodontist is able to remove the pulp, bacteria, and decayed nerve tissue from the tooth by using a series of root canal files. When the infection has been removed, the tooth will be cleaned and sealed.

Depending on your circumstances and personal treatment plan, the tooth may be sealed immediately after the root canal treatment, or been given an appointment to have it sealed a week later. If the latter is advised, for example there may be an existing infection and it might be necessary to place a medication in the tooth to rid it of bacteria.  If the filling is not completed on the same day as the root canal treatment, a temporary filling is placed in the exterior hole to prevent saliva and food from entering the cavity between appointments.

At the next appointment, the interior of the tooth will be filled with a sealer paste and a rubber compound called “gutta percha”. After the interior of the tooth has been filled, a permanent filling will be placed or close the access hole created at the beginning of the treatment.

Final steps may include further restoration of the tooth by utilizing  a crown, post and crown , or other restorative procedure  to protect the tooth and prevent breakage. As stated, each individual patient is unique, which entails different treatment planning from person to person. If any additional dental work is required, it will be discussed with you by the dentist.

Recovering from a Root Canal

After the procedure has been completed, your mouth will remain numb for a couple of hours due to the local anesthetic used. Most people are capable of returning to work, school, or other activities right after, but it is recommended to wait until the numbness subsides before eating.

For the first handful of days after, the tooth that received treatment may feel sensitive- this is due to inflammation of the surrounding tissue and is especially common if there was pain or infection prior to the procedure. The pain associated can be eased with the use of over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen /anti-inflammatories  (Advil, Motrin).

Until your procedure has been completed fully- that is, a permanent filling has been placed or the additional dental work has been done, it is advised to avoid chewing with the tooth. This helps prevent debris and bacteria from entering the canals and the fragile tooth from breaking before it can be fully restored. As always, it is important to keep up with your normal brushing regime of three times a day, and ensuring you floss every day.

Root Canal Prevention

As we know, root canal treatments are required when the nerve of the tooth and surrounding pulp become infected and inflamed, which is typically due to deep decay. To protect your teeth from decay and prevent the possibility of needing a root canal, be sure to follow these steps:

  • *Brush three times a day
  • *Floss at least once a day
  • *Don’t clench or grind your teeth
  • *Wear a mouth guard to avoid sport-related injuries
  • *See your dentist regularly


If you suspect you might need a root canal, wish to prevent the possibility of needing a root canal, or even have any questions regarding them- please don’t hesitate to call our office!

With over 30 years of experience, “Your Smile is Our Passion!”