This procedure removes dental pulp when it has become dead or infected. Dental pulp is the soft core of the tooth. It contains nerves, blood vessels, and connective tissue. The pulp extends from the top of the tooth, called the crown, all the way down to the roots, in branches called canals.
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Reasons for Procedure
Dental pulp may become infected because of:
When dental pulp becomes infected or dies, a painful abscess within the jawbone will occur. Removing dead or diseased dental pulp will prevent infection from spreading to other areas of the mouth and destroying bone around the tooth. If a root canal is not done, the tooth will need to be removed.
Common signs of pulp problems include:
- Pain when biting down on a tooth
- Pain when the tooth is not being used
- Sensitivity to hot or cold food or beverages
- Tooth discoloration
- Swollen gums around the infected tooth
- A draining boil-like structure (called a fistula) on the gum adjacent to the tooth
Problems from the procedure are rare, but all procedures have some risk. Your dentist will review potential problems, like:
- Pain and swelling
- Surgical-wound infection
- Persistent abscess
- Inability to save the tooth
Factors that may increase the risk of complications include:
- Immune system disorders
- Bleeding disorders
- Circulatory problems that can cause healing problems, such as diabetes
Be sure to discuss these risks with your dentist before the procedure.
What to Expect
Prior to the Procedure
Your dentist will:
- Do a thorough dental exam
- X-ray your mouth to look at the extent of damage to the tooth
Local anesthesia will be used. The dentist will numb the area in your mouth. The anesthesia will be given as an injection.
Description of the Procedure
A small hole will be made through the top of the tooth and into the pulp. Next, steel files will be inserted to extract the pulp tissue. All teeth have 1-4 individual canals. Pulp will need to be extracted from all canals in the affected tooth. Once all pulp has been removed, the walls of the root canal will be reshaped and enlarged. Medication will be inserted to kill bacteria.
At this point, a temporary filling may be inserted. This filling will protect the tooth. The procedure may be done within 1 visit or at multiple appointments. This depends on the condition of the tooth. Lastly, the canal will be dried, sterilized, and filled with a rubbery material. This material will prevent recontamination.
Immediately After Procedure
The dentist will:
- Permanently seal the area with cement
- Place a gold or porcelain crown over the tooth to strengthen its structure
How Long Will It Take?
A root canal may take 1-3 appointments. Each appointment may last 1-2 hours.
How Much Will It Hurt?
You will have discomfort for a few days after each visit. Your doctor may give you pain medication.
Be sure to see your dentist for regular visits as advised.
Call Your Dentist
Call your dentist if any of the following occur.
- Signs of infection, including fever and chills
- Redness, swelling, increasing pain, excessive bleeding, or any discharge from the area around the tooth
- Tooth loosens after root canal treatment
- Headache, muscle aches, lightheadedness, or general discomfort
- Pain that you cannot control with the medications you were given
If you think you have an emergency, call for emergency medical services right away.
Mouth Heatlhy—American Dental Association
National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research
Canadian Dental Association
Dental Hygiene Canada
Root canals: FAQs about treatment that can save your tooth. Mouth Healthy—American Dental Association website. Available at: https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/r/root-canals. Accessed March 5, 2018.
Root canal treatment. Encyclopedia of Surgery website. Available at: http://www.surgeryencyclopedia.com/Pa-St/Root-Canal-Treatment.html. Accessed March 5, 2018.
What is a root canal? Know Your Teeth—Academy of General Dentistry website. Available at: http://www.knowyourteeth.com/infobites/abc/article/?abc=R&iid=326&aid=1310. Updated January 2012. Accessed March 5, 2018.
6/2/2011 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillancehttp://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T905141/Treatment-for-tobacco-use: Mills E, Eyawo O, Lockhart I, Kelly S, Wu P, Ebbert JO. Smoking cessation reduces postoperative complications: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Med. 2011;124(2):144-154.
Last reviewed March 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Monica Zangwill, MD, MPH Last Updated: 8/15/2012