In plain English: Why do you need a root canal?

Root canal treatment can save a tooth from having to be removed and replaced.

If infection reaches the soft tissue inside the root of the tooth – the pulp – a dentist may need to perform a root canal procedure. An infection can cause the tooth to need removing and replacing, and so the purpose of root canal treatment is to save it.

Why does infection occur?

Infection can occur when bacteria finds a way to access the root of the tooth. Common ways that bacteria causes a root canal include:

Tooth decay: The tough outer layer of the tooth is called the enamel. Plaque, commonly caused by sugary foods and drinks, can break down enamel over time. Eventually, this can result in decay which exposes the root canal of the tooth and leaves it open to infection.

Cracked tooth: Accidents can result in a chipped or cracked tooth which provides a gateway for infection for enter the root. Even if a crack or chip is not visible, an accident could still cause injury to the tooth and an infection be possible. 

Periodontal disease: Also known as gum disease, this is another problem associated with plaque. A build-up of plaque causes inflammation of the gums. When left not treated in the early stages, the  disease can lead to the gums pulling away from the teeth. Bacteria can take hold in the gap between the tooth and the gums, allowing infection to develop.

To determine if a root canal is necessary, the dentist will ask a number of questions.If infection is suspected, the dentist will ask a number of questions to determine if a root canal is necessary.

Where a root canal procedure is necessary, initial signs of infection often include pain, discomfort, sensitivity to hot/cold changes and swelling. Any of these symptoms, or a combination of several, signal that a visit to the dentist is required. During the appointment, the dentist will ask a number of questions, examine the mouth, and may take x-rays to understand what is causing the problem. There are often a number of visual signs that help the dentist to narrow down the cause, such as discolouration and changes in tissue appearance.

Why does infection lead to root canal treatment?

An infection of the pulp can spread to surrounding tissue and into the jawbone.

Inside the root of the tooth is soft tissue called pulp. The pulp contains blood vessels and nerves, and helps the tooth to grow and develop. Once a tooth is fully grown, it can survive without the pulp, as it can access the nutrients it needs from the surrounding tissue. 

Left untreated, an infection of the pulp can spread to surrounding tissue and into the jawbone, eventually leading to tooth loss. It can also cause an abscessed tooth, which is when the infection causes an accumulation of pus at the very tip of the root, forming a pocket underneath. An abscess can also cause infection to spread beyond the tooth concerned. Additional symptoms of an abscessed tooth include an unpleasant taste in the mouth and a fever.

If an infection does develop, it is therefore preferable to remove the pulp before it can spread any further. The removal of the pulp is the procedure known as a root canal treatment. 

What to expect from root canal treatment

A root canal procedure is usually completed over three visits to the surgery. Your dentist will use an anaesthetic to numb the area around the infected tooth, so you don't feel any pain. Infected nerve/pulp in the root canal of the tooth is broken up and dressed with an antibiotic paste before being temporarily filled. The second appointment involves completely removing the nerve and widening the root canals of the tooth. Space inside the tooth is temporarily filled to prevent further infection. A permanent root filling is placed at a third visit. The permanent crown will be placed on top of the affected tooth as soon as possible, usually in a follow-up appointment.

If you suspect you may need a root canal treatment, or have any pain or discomfort, contact City Dentists. Make an appointment online or call us on 04 978 4964.