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Living Healthy

When Do You Need a Root Canal Procedure?

December 15, 2017

Have you ever been kept awake by intense pain coming from a tooth? Do you suffer from sensitivity to hot liquids or foods — even after you’ve stopped eating and drinking? Are your gums or jaw swollen? These are among the signs you might need a root canal.

Typical signs you need a root canal might include:

  • Severe toothache pain when chewing or applying pressure
  • Prolonged sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures
  • Discoloration or darkening of the tooth
  • Swelling and tenderness in nearby gums
  • A persistent or recurring pimple on the gums*
You Could Experience Any of These Symptoms — Or None

Root canals are tricky because sometimes, you don’t feel anything wrong. Or the discomfort you’re feeling could be due to gum disease, sinus congestion or something else entirely. But if you suspect something is wrong, don’t wait: visit your dentist as soon as possible to find out for sure.

What Is a Root Canal, Anyway?

A “root canal” is an inner part of a tooth, which runs along the center between the pulp chamber towards the crown and the root apex at the bottom. Many people may use the phrase “root canal” to mean the dental procedure that treats the pulp tissue within the canal when it becomes inflamed or infected. This could be caused by:

  • A deep cavity or extensive tooth decay
  • A cracked or fractured tooth
  • Repeated dental procedures on the same tooth or in the same area
  • Injury or trauma to the tooth or jaw (even if there’s no visible crack or chip)
  • An abscess that’s formed when the pulp dies and the area becomes infected

In these cases, a root canal treatment can repair and often save your tooth — instead of your dentist needing to remove it. And for most people, a root canal is better (and less expensive) than getting a bridge, implant, or removable partial denture to replace a lost tooth. You may also have a dental insurance plan that includes coverage for major services like root canals, to help you manage the cost involved.

In these cases, a root canal treatment can repair and often save your tooth — instead of your dentist needing to remove it. And for most people, a root canal is better (and less expensive) than getting a bridge, implant, or removable partial denture to replace a lost tooth. You may also have a dental insurance plan that includes coverage for major services like root canals, to help you manage the cost involved.

What to Expect If You Get a Root Canal Procedure

Your regular dentist might perform the procedure, or might refer you to an endodontist who specializes in treating the pulp and nerve. Either way, you should expect it to take one, two or more visits for total treatment, depending on your tooth.

At first, your dentist or endodontist will likely take x-rays and give you a local anesthetic, so the feeling is about the same as having a regular cavity filled. After the tooth is numb and you’re relatively comfortable, they will:

  • Remove the inflamed or infected pulp
  • Clean and shape the inside of the root canal
  • Fill the space with a rubber-like material and seal it against future infection**

Then at a follow-up visit with your dentist, you’ll get a crown, regular filling or other restoration on your tooth to protect it from further damage.

When It’s All Over

It’s possible you’ll still feel a little pain or sensitivity after the treatment. This can usually be treated with over-the-counter medication, but talk to your dentist if the discomfort lingers. At times, root canals can fail and teeth can become re-infected and require additional treatment. With proper care, however, your restored tooth can hopefully last a lifetime.

Just don’t forget to continue practicing good oral hygiene after a root canal: brush twice a day — using soft-bristled toothbrushes — and floss or clean between your teeth once a day. And of course, see your dentist regularly for routine checkups and cleanings.

Sources:

**American Association of Endodontists website: Root Canals Explained (accessed 10/17): aae.org.