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What is root canal therapy and why do I need it?

Root canal therapy is a common treatment for cases in which the dental pulp of a tooth has been damaged or become infected.

When dental decay is deep, it can cause inflammation of the nerve (dental pulp) inside the tooth. Bacteria can also invade the nerve, causing an infection.

Nerve infection can also occur after an impact has caused a tooth to break causing the nerve to be exposed, or displacement of the tooth from its normal position, severing the tooth’s blood supply.

The purpose of a root canal is to remove the nerve tissue so that the tooth becomes “dead”.

What treatment options are available?

There are two main treatment options are available to alleviate pain and eradicate infection:

  • removing the tooth
  • saving the tooth with a root canal and filling the space.

The following tests can determine the health of the tooth:

  • Radiographs: to check for any signs of infection
  • Cold test: application of cold instrument to the tooth
  • Heat test: application of heat to the tooth
  • Percussion: gently tapping the tooth.

Root Canal treatment is not feasible if there is insufficient healthy tooth structure remaining.

What does root canal treatment involve?

Root canal treatment involves cleaning bacteria from the root canal system filling the root canal and sealing the tooth with a filling and crown.

There are several stages in the treatment process, and these are usually spread over two or three appointments. During each appointment it is common for at least one X-ray of the tooth to be taken.

Before treatment, some local anaesthetic is administered to the area to make it completely numb, and the tooth is surrounded by a rubber sheet known as a dam. This isolates the tooth from the bacteria and saliva in the rest of your mouth.

Then all decay, along with the inflamed / infected nerve, is removed from the tooth. The tooth is flushed out, or irrigated, and sometimes a medicine is placed inside it and remains for several weeks to help reduce inflammation, with a temporary filling holding it in place.

After root canal therapy, it is important for the tooth to be properly sealed to prevent leakage and a re-invasion of bacteria. A permanent filling is therefore placed where the nerve used to be. This filling may be placed by your dentist in the one appointment, or you might need to arrange another appointment for the placement of a crown (also known as a cap) to ensure a long-lasting seal and provide the tooth with additional strength and support.

After your initial appointment you might experience some mild discomfort. This can be managed with over-the-counter pain medications and will diminish within 48 hours.

What symptoms will I experience if I need a root canal?

  • pain when eating or drinking hot or cold foods and drinks
  • pain upon biting or chewing (in some cases)
  • the tooth may feel loose.

As the infection progresses, these symptoms often disappear as the pulp dies. While it may appear the tooth as healed, the infection has in fact spread through the root canal system. Eventually further symptoms can occur, such as:

  • gum swelling
  • facial swelling
  • pus may be present
  • pain when biting or chewing
  • the tooth becoming darker in colour.

It is important that you see us immediately if you suffer from any toothache. Please contact us for an emergency appointment.

What is the advantage of saving the tooth with root canal treatment?

Teeth should ideally be saved for as long as possible because:

  • It enables better chewing function
  • It secures the position of neighbouring teeth
  • It’s aesthetically appealing, avoiding visible spaces between teeth
  • The surrounding bone can be retained and won’t deteriorate or shrink. 
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