Every year, more than 15 million root canal treatments are performed in the U.S., according to the American Association of Endodontists. That’s about 41,000 root canals each and every day. Yet despite how common root canals are, there’s still a lot of misinformation about what a root canal is — and how painful the procedure really is.
Of course, no one wants to have a root canal if they don’t need one. But there are some conditions where a root canal is absolutely the best option — and you might be surprised just how successful and, yes, comfortable the whole experience can be.
What is a root canal?
When you look at your teeth, you see the hard exterior that takes all the stresses of biting and chewing. But the center of your tooth looks entirely different. That’s where the nerves and blood supply that keep the tooth healthy are located. More specifically, they’re contained in channels or canals that extend from the center of your tooth down to the root (hence the term, root canal). The center material is called pulp, and although it’s usually protected by the tooth’s hard outer layer, sometimes, it can become infected. When that happens, a root canal is the only way to remove the infected pulp without taking out the entire tooth.
People who have infected pulp tend to have more severe tooth pain compared to the discomfort of a “regular” cavity that primarily affects the outer part of the tooth. Pain can be especially bad when biting or chewing. Sometimes, the gum around the tooth can swell or a pus-filled lump (abscess) can form. You might notice a foul taste in your mouth, and the tooth may become especially sensitive to hot or cold temperatures.
During a root canal procedure, special tools are used to access and remove the damaged pulp, leaving the rest of the tooth intact. Once the pulp is removed, the canal is carefully cleaned and “packed” with a special filling material (and sometimes antibiotics if the infection is severe). Since most teeth treated with root canals become dark over time, the final step in a root canal treatment is to have a crown applied. The crown will be crafted of strong porcelain and tinted to match your other teeth so it blends in.
The dangers of delaying treatment
One of the main benefits of having a root canal as soon as possible: You can avoid having the tooth pulled. Even a single missing tooth can increase your risk for additional tooth loss. That’s because the tooth root helps promote bone replenishment in that area of your jaw. Once the tooth and its root are gone, the jaw bone begins to atrophy. As the bone thins, the teeth on either side of the gap start to drift inward while their roots loosen and weaken. You can replace a missing tooth with a dental implant, but that’s a lot more costly and complicated than having a root canal to save the tooth.
And the other main benefit of not delaying care is to prevent more serious infection. Once the pulp inside your tooth becomes infected, it doesn’t take long for those bacteria to spread down the canal and into the root area. From there, it’s a short “hop” to your jaw bone. A bone infection isn’t just extremely painful — it can also be very dangerous. Having a root canal as soon as it’s prescribed is vitally important for making sure the infection doesn’t spread to your jaw or elsewhere.
Root canal: It’s (probably) not what you think
For anyone nervous about getting a root canal, here’s some good news: Advances in pain management and dental techniques mean that today’s root canal procedures are faster, safer and a lot more comfortable (it’s true) than they used to be. At Oasis Smiles Dentistry, we offer sedation dentistry options that can be customized based on each patient’s needs and desires, so you can be relaxed throughout the entire procedure.
Not all tooth pain means you need a root canal, but any pain is a sign something's not right. If you're having tooth pain or other unusual symptoms in your teeth or gums, don't delay getting the treatment you need to stay healthy. Book an appointment online today.