If you visited your local dentist’s office for tooth pain, your dentist may diagnose you with a pulp infection and recommend a root canal. While many people have heard the term “root canal”, not many people know what actually happens during one. If this sounds like you, or if you are scheduled for an upcoming root canal, you may be wondering how a root canal is performed.
Before getting into the specifics of the root canal procedure, you will need to have a brief understanding of what a pulp infection is to understand why a root canal is necessary. Dental pulp is the innermost layer of your tooth and it is composed of blood vessels and nerves. When bacteria that cause tooth decay are able to erode through the enamel and dentin layers, they cause the dental pulp to become infected.
Once the dental pulp is infected, the infection will continue to spread unless it is removed. This means that it can move down into the jaw bone or even to the surrounding teeth. Simply stated, you do not want to leave a pulp infection untreated. Unfortunately, the only treatment for a pulp infection is to remove the decayed pulp from the pulp chamber and root canals, hence a root canal.
If you are having a root canal, here is what you can expect. First, your dentist will numb the affected area with a dental anesthetic. If you suffer from dental anxiety or if you’d rather not be aware of what is happening, then dental sedation may also be used. The most commonly used dental sedation method is nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. Nitrous oxide is an inhaled gas that produces feelings of calmness and wears off once the gas is no longer being inhaled.
After ensuring that you are numb and relaxed, your dentist will begin the procedure by drilling a tiny hole in the top of the affected tooth. This hole will pass through the enamel and dentin layers to access the pulp chamber, and the entire procedure will be performed through this tiny hole. Once the pulp chamber has been accessed, your dentist will use root canal files to remove infected tissue from the pulp chamber and root canals.
These files are specially designed to fit in the narrow and winding root canals. However, this process may still take a while because your dentist wants to be sure they remove all of the infection. Because of this, the inside of your tooth will also likely be flushed with a microbial solution. This microbial solution will make sure that any remaining bacteria are eliminated.
At this point, you have a hole in your tooth leading to an empty pulp chamber and root canals. To replace the infected dental pulp, your dentist will fill the chamber and canals with a rubber-like material called gutta percha. They may also place a small post inside as well. Both the gutta percha, and the possible post, provide internal support to the tooth and prevent it from collapsing in on itself.
The final step is to seal the tooth with dental cement and place a dental crown over the affected tooth. Sealing the tooth with cement and placing a dental crown reduces the likelihood of bacteria re-entering the tooth. Dental crowns also provide protection from damage, as well as further structural support.
Now that you have a better understanding of what happens during a root canal, you can also understand why your tooth hurts and why you need a root canal. While root canals are still no walk in the park, knowing how a root canal is performed will help you feel calmer and more prepared the day of your procedure. Now that’s something to smile about!
Dr. April Toyer became a Diplomate of the American Board of Pediatric Dentistry in 2011 and is proud to be a consultant for Committee of Sedation and Anesthesia within the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.