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What to expect from a root canal

Root canal treatment – or just “root canal”; or, as we dentists call it, endodontic treatment – is a procedure used to save a tooth that would otherwise need to be removed. It is usually carried out on teeth that are severely decayed or broken or are infected – conditions that cause the patient to complain of strong pain in the area of the affected tooth.

The purpose of this procedure is to remove the nerve tissue so that the tooth becomes “dead”. At the start of the procedure, the dentist numbs the tooth before removing all decay or pieces of broken tooth. That allows access to the nerve chamber housed in the middle of the tooth. Next, the nerve chamber is emptied and then cleaned using an antiseptic solution. The tooth is then dressed and a temporary filling placed until the tooth settles down and the pain subsides.

When the patient comes back another day we open the tooth up again, place a rubber shield (or “dam”) on top to keep the tooth as sterile as possible and proceed to shape the inside of the root canal such that it can be filled with the root filling. For this shaping process, we may use a machine, hand instruments or a combination of the two. We use a different machine, or an X-ray, to precisely measure the length of the root and hence its filling.

This procedure can take one, two or more visits to complete, depending on the tooth’s condition and structure. Teeth can have one root (in the case of front teeth), two (in the case of premolars) or three or more roots (in the case of molars).

The root canal or canals are filled with a rubbery material and sealed with an antiseptic cement. An X-ray is taken to verify that the root or roots has/have been completely filled. We again place a filling on top and wait a few weeks to ensure that the tooth settles down completely.

At the final visit, we usually place a crown (or cap) on the root-treated tooth to replace lost structure and add strength. These teeth need to last for as long as possible and look the part, as most of them will discolour over time. Not ideal if it’s a front tooth that’s been treated!

So what can you expect from root canal treatment? Quite simply, a second life for your natural tooth! Always think twice before you agree to have a tooth removed – because once it’s gone, it’s gone.

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