What You Should Know About Root Canals
The “root canal” is actually the hollow space inside a tooth, filled with a material we call pulp. “Pulp” is just a term for the blood vessels, nerve tissue and some other cells that live in the root canal. Those tissues feed and preserve the tooth, giving it the moisture, resilience, and hardness it needs, and the nerves give the teeth feeling.
The living tissue in the pulp can die if it gets infected. If nothing is done, an infection can spread to the jaw and other teeth, eventually becoming life-threatening. Endodontic therapy, the procedure commonly known as “root canal,” is a dental operation to fix that.
What happens in a root canal?
The dentist drills an access hole in the top of your tooth and removes the dead or irreversibly diseased pulp. He or she will then fill in the hole with a plant-based, rubber-like filler called gutta-percha, sealing the openings of the roots to prevent reinfection. Since that tooth can no longer grow its own enamel, the dentist will put a crown on top to do the same function.
The tooth you would have now is technically dead, since what kept it alive was the pulp before it got infected. But with proper care, even the dead tooth can be safely used for many years
When should I get root canal treatment?
Here you really need to consult with your dentist. Sometimes the pulp in your tooth might be dying but still salvageable, and your dentist should try to save it. Determining whether the pulp is diseased or already dead and whether diseased pulp can recover are tricky and require expertise. Here are some of the signs dentists look for:
Random pain. A random, spontaneous pain in a specific tooth, not caused by impact or by hot or cold, may be a sign of irreversible pulpitis.
Positional pain. Tooth pain that changes noticeably between standing up and lying down may be a sign of an abscess. Tooth abscesses are empty spaces near the root of the tooth, where the infection spills out and prevents bone growth. An abscess can be confirmed by x-ray.
Lingering pain. If you drink hot or cold water and get a brief pain, it might mean you’re fine, or at least that any infection you have is treatable. But if your tooth stays painful and sensitive for a long time after, it means the pulp tissues is not recovering and is probably dead.
Referred pain. If something hurts so much it’s actually making some other body part hurt despite being fine, that is referred pain. A common example is the “ice cream headache,” in which the upper front of the head gets pain signals from nerves in the mouth and throat. If your tooth pain is so bad it’s making the jaw, ear, etc. hurt, that’s a strong sign of an abscess caused by pulpitis.
Fistula. A fistula is basically a pimple- or cyst-like formation on the gum because the body is trying to get rid of infectious fluids. It’s a sure sign of infection but doesn’t always make it clear which tooth.
As with so many other medical and dental issues, early detection can go a long way to help.
Are there alternatives?
Assuming your tooth pulp is infected beyond hope of curing, the main alternative to endodontic therapy is to extract it completely and replace it with a dental implant. Implants may be safer because the dentist can be sure all the infection is gone first, but they are also more expensive. Root canals have a small risk of failure, but mostly if the teeth are already broken down too far or have weirdly shaped roots. And root canals are also more affordable. If the cost of implants got low enough, we would probably see many people opting for them instead of root canals.
If you have been experiencing dental pain and would like to know what your options are, or if you have any other questions, call Apple Valley Dental Group at 540-635-2493 or you can contact us on our website.