That headline alone is enough to make most people run for the hills or go hide under the boardwalk over at Jenkinson’s. The poor root canal — it needs a new PR firm or publicist. Everyone in the back of their minds equates a root canal with some form of medieval torture, somewhere between the rack and a hard place, so to speak.
But those are drastic misperceptions, so this springy month at Gentle Dental let’s get into the root canal, the tooth lifesaver.
Why do I need a root canal?
When infection penetrates the enamel and the dentin, the soft tissues of the pulp are defenseless. The infection will spread throughout the tooth and can eventually lead to abscesses and possible spreading of infection to other parts of the body. When the pulp, where the tooth nerves are found, becomes infected the tooth will become very sensitive. The patient will have pain, prolonged sensitivity to hot or cold, tenderness to the touch and when chewing, discoloration of the tooth, swelling and tenderness of the surrounding gum tissue, and persistent pimples on the gums. The only way to address the infection and pain is to either extract the tooth or to perform a root canal.
What is a root canal?
The procedure gets its name from the root canal, the chamber inside the root of the tooth that’s made up of the pulp chamber, the main canals, and smaller canals that branch out to connect the main root canals to one another, or to the surface of the root. These chambers are hollow spaces that run through the center of the root and are home to the soft tissues: blood vessels, nerves, and other connective tissues. Together all of this stuff is known as the pulp of the tooth and provide all the nourishment and sensory responses for the tooth.
What goes wrong with the root canal?
The pulp likes to be left alone, kind of like your teen son or daughter. When the pulp is exposed, problems begin. This can come from a crack or chip in a tooth, or if decay has gone through the enamel and the dentin and has entered the pulp. All of these cases will create pain for the patient, and if left untreated, the exposed pulp will become infected and inflamed. Now the pain can be serious when the person talks, bites, eats, or simply closes his or her mouth. When things get to this point, a root canal will be needed just to save the tooth from extraction.
This is likely where all the misperception lies: people associate the pain when they need a root canal to the root canal procedure. That’s like blaming Advil for your shoulder pain. You need to remember what a root canal does — it completely clears out the interior of the tooth, blood vessels, nerves, connective tissue, everything. Once a root canal is complete, the tooth has no more sensitivity. It can’t be painful.