Root Canal Treatments

A root canal treatment is performed if you have an infection in the core of your tooth. Common symptoms include sore and swollen gums, toothache, pain when eating or drinking, and facial swelling. Despite common concerns a root canal treatment is not painful, and a timely treatment can save a tooth that might otherwise have to be removed completely. A dentist or orthodontist will perform the procedure, using local anaesthetic. After the root canal treatment your dentist will monitor the tooth for up to four years to ensure the infection does not return. Both NHS and private dentists offer the treatment.

If you are suffering from any of the following symptoms, it could be sign of an infected pulp:

  • Sore and swollen gums.
  • Toothache.
  • Pain when eating or drinking.
  • Facial swellings.

This infection cannot be treated by antibiotics so it is recommended that you visit your dentist or GP for an accurate diagnosis of your problem.

In many cases, the solution could be root canal treatment. Despite common concerns, the procedure isn’t painful, and a timely treatment can save a tooth that might otherwise have to be extracted completely.

The root canal refers to the space at the core of your tooth that holds the pulp. This dental pulp consists of blood vessels and nerves and can become infected if your tooth is damaged by an injury, or if an oral hygiene problem like gum disease, tooth decay or problems with fillings has damaged the protective outer coatings of your tooth.

Root canal Toothpick image

Once the pulp has become infected, it can spread to the root canal and cause considerable pain. Left unchecked, this could then form pus-filled abscesses inside the tooth or in the supporting structure between the tooth and gum. This infection may kill the nerve inside the tooth or spread into your jawbone. In such cases, the tooth will need to be removed and you may need an implant, denture or bridge in its place.

Having the problematic tissue removed with a root canal procedure is often the most effective way to stop the infection. While it can be worrying to hear that a nerve is being removed, the function of the tooth will not be affected by the removal of a nerve.

Although all dentists carry out root canal work, if your tooth provides a particular challenge then you may be referred to an endodontist. This may also be the case for a root canal procedure on a tooth that you have had the same problem with before. An endodontist is a dentist with specialist status after extensive training in treatment of the dental pulp. You can get a referral to see an endodontist from a general dentist, or you can find them using the General Dental Council's specialist list.

Before you undergo root canal treatment, you will need a dental examination, followed by an X-ray to get an idea of the severity of the infection and to see how many root canals the tooth in question has.

Next, the dentist will be able to tell you exactly what will be involved for your case, talking you through the procedure in detail. They will do this to put you at ease and allow you to make an informed decision about going ahead with the procedure. If you do, you will need to sign a consent form. This is normal and precedes most dental treatments.

Sometimes a root canal procedure can be completed in a single session, but if your case is especially complex, treatment may take longer.

First, you will be put under a local anaesthetic, which will stop you feeling any pain in the area being worked on. You will however remain conscious. To get the tooth ready, your dentist will separate it from the rest of your mouth using a sheet of plastic known as a dam, which stops any harmful bacteria from the infected tooth spreading around your mouth.

The dentist will then drill a hole in the tooth, giving them access to the infected pulp and decaying tissue, which they will clean out using a special antiseptic fluid. In order to fill the root canal system properly it may have to be widened using special files. As this process can take time, you may have to come back for a second session before a permanent seal can be applied. If so, your dentist will use a temporary filling to plug the gap. Once the permanent seal has been fitted, the dentist may fit you with a crown if they consider your tooth to be at risk of becoming damaged further in future.

Most people fear root canal treatment because of the perception that it will be painful. The reality is that it is not painful when a local anaesthetic is used, but it is usual to experience some level of pain after the anaesthetic has worn off. This is usually manageable with over the counter anti-inflammatories; your dentist can advise you further. Remember that you are more likely to hear about negative experiences from friends and family, but rarely when a treatment is pain free. Therefore always seek unbiased information and advice when investigating your treatment options.

Shortly after the treatment, you may find your mouth feels sensitive, especially when brushing, but this will soon pass. Any soreness can be lessened with the use of painkillers.

To ensure that the root canal treatment is successful and the root is healing, regular check-ups and X-rays should be taken by your dentist over a period of four years. If an infection returns, you could need another treatment. If re-treatment is unsuccessful or the infection still remains, you may require an apicoectomy (root end surgery) where the root tip is removed along with the infected tissue.

If the infection does not return however and all checks are satisfactory after the four-year period it is a good indication that you will not need any repeat root canal treatment or extraction.

A tooth that has been subject to root canal does not need to be treated any differently to your healthy teeth. Maintaining good oral hygiene is however important to stop an infection reoccurring.

This varies depending on the severity of the case, your personal circumstances and where you go for treatment. The more straightforward your tooth is to deal with, the less the procedure will cost. In some cases you could get treatment for a reduced cost or even for free, for instance, if you are pregnant or under the age of 18 (on the NHS). Private root canal treatment can vary from £120 to £750 depending on the extent of the treatment required and the expertise of the dentist.

Several options of managing the cost of treatment exist, such as taking out a dental insurance plan where you pay a low monthly fee over the year instead of paying for each treatment individually. There are also dental discount plans, and finance plans, which mean that you can spread the cost of a treatment over several months.

However, remember that maintaining good oral hygiene can both prevent you from needing a root canal in the first place, and ensure the infection does not return. Brushing twice daily with a fluoride toothpaste and having regular check-ups is by far the most cost effective way to maintain good oral health, as treating a condition such as an infected pulp can become expensive in the long run.

Root canal problems can return, and if the tooth is in a weakened state then it may need to be protected by a porcelain or metal cap, known as a crown. If a large amount of the tooth has been lost to decay or physical damage a supportive post may need to be inserted into the root canal to help support the crown and keep it in place. Your dentist will advise what is suitable for your particular case.

If you have an infected pulp but opt not to have a root canal treatment, you risk having to take the tooth out entirely and more seriously, the infection spreading. This may result in several tooth extractions and infection of your gums. Apart from becoming very expensive to treat at this stage as a dental implant or bridge may be required, the health risks of having an infected tooth in your mouth for longer than necessary are serious. It is therefore recommended that you seek help as soon as you experience the problem.

This article was provided by Toothpick, the leading provider of online dentist appointments in the UK.

Now read about Some Dental and Periodontal Diseases

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Document ID:
28968 (v1)
Last Checked:
25 November 2014
Next Review:
24 November 2017

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.