Underneath each tooth's outer enamel is an area of soft tissue called the pulp, which carries the tooth's nerves and blood vessels. Root canals are very small, thin passageways that branch off from the top pulp chamber and lead to the root tip. The number of canals in a tooth can vary from one to four or more, depending on the tooth's location in the mouth.

Sometimes, the pulp inside the tooth becomes infected by bacteria, through decay or broken tooth structure, or damaged by a traumatic injury to the tooth. An inflamed or infected pulp can cause sensitivity and pain, and may allow bacteria to enter the bloodstream causing infections in other parts of the body. In addition to staving off potentially harmful infections in other parts of your body, root canal treatment can generally relieve painful symptoms and save the damaged tooth.

Endodontic treatment (commonly called a root canal) involves the removal of diseased or damaged pulp inside the tooth, followed by the cleaning, disinfection, reshaping, and filling of the canals within the tooth.  The procedure enables you to retain your tooth, avoiding an extraction.  Most teeth with a root canal will require a crown, fabricated by the patient's general dentist, to help ensure its longevity.  With proper care following the procedure, research shows an endodontically treated tooth should heal with about a 90% success rate. 

Root canal treatment usually can be completed in one visit. Occasionally, a tooth will have an excessive amount of drainage, an open apex or other complications and may require additional appointments.  Here is what normally occurs during a root canal procedure:

  • First, your gums are numbed with a topical substance and a local anesthetic is injected into the nearby area to completely numb your tooth. For patients experiencing anxiety, nitrous oxide gas may be used.
  • A small sheet of rubber, called a rubber dam, is placed over the surrounding area of the affected tooth in order to isolate it from surrounding teeth.  The rubber dam prevents saliva from entering the tooth and prevents the patient from swallowing debris.
  • A small opening is made in the biting surface of a posterior tooth or the tongue side of an anterior tooth in order to access the pulp chamber, pulp and root canals. The pulp is removed, the pulp chamber cleaned, and the canals are cleared of debris and tissue. In most cases, the canals are filled with an inert, rubbery-like material called gutta percha.
  • In situations in which the treatment cannot be completed in a single visit,  an antibiotic medication is placed in the canal, and an additional appointment will be scheduled for the completion of treatment. Depending on the circumstances, the access is closed with a temporary restoration or a permanent restoration.
  • Following the completion of the root canal, the patient returns to the general dentist for the fabrication of a crown or other permanent restoration, if not placed at the time of completion of the root canal.

Post-treatment Instructions

It is normal to feel some tenderness in the area over the next few days as the body undergoes the natural healing process. Some tenderness in your jaw may exist from keeping it open for an extended period of time. These symptoms are temporary and usually respond very well to over-the-counter pain medications. It is important for you to follow the instructions on how to take these medications. Remember that narcotic medications, if prescribed, may make you drowsy, and at least eight hours should pass prior to operating dangerous machinery or driving a car after taking them. Your tooth may continue to feel slightly different from your other teeth for some time after your root canal treatment has been completed. However, if you have fever or swelling or severe pain or pressure that lasts more than a day, contact our office.