Root Canal Treatments

Authored by Dr Ben Williams, 09 Jul 2017

Reviewed by:
Dr Hayley Willacy, 09 Jul 2017

A root canal treatment is performed if you have an infection in the centre of your tooth. Root canal treatment is not painful and can save a tooth that might otherwise have to be removed completely.

If you have any of the following symptoms, you may have an infection in the centre of your tooth - the pulp:

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

This infection cannot be treated by antibiotics so it is recommended that you visit your dentist for an accurate diagnosis of the problem. In some cases you may need root canal treatment.

Read more about symptoms that may show root canal treatment is needed.

The root canal refers to the space at the centre of your tooth that holds the pulp. The dental pulp consists of blood vessels and nerves and it can become infected. An infected pulp can be very painful and the infection can spread through the root canal out into the bone.

Having the infected pulp tissue removed is 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 usually be affected by removing a nerve.

Learn more about why root canal treatment is needed.

Although all dentists carry out root canal work, if your tooth provides a particular challenge then you may be referred to an endodontist. An endodontist is a dentist with specialist status after extensive training in treatment of the dental pulp.

Before the 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.

This should allow the dentist to tell you exactly what will be involved in 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 comes before most dental treatments.

Learn more about how you are assessed before root canal treatment.

Firstly you may need a local anaesthetic to stop you feeling any pain in the area being worked on, but you will stay awake throughout. In situations where the pulp has died inside a tooth it might not be necessary to have a local anaesthetic. To prepare the tooth, your dentist will separate it from the rest of your mouth using a sheet of plastic known as a dam, which stops any germs (bacteria) from re-infecting the tooth after it has been cleaned.

The dentist will then drill a hole in the tooth to remove any decay and access the infected pulp, which they will remove. They will disinfect the space using a special antiseptic fluid. In order to fill the root canal system properly it will have to be widened using special files. As this process can take time, you may have to come back for one or more sessions before a permanent filling can be placed within the root canal. If so, your dentist will use a temporary filling to seal the tooth from further infection. Once the permanent root filling 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).

Read more about root canal treatment.

A lot of people are afraid of root canal treatment because they fear it will be painful. Actually the procedure is not usually more painful than having a regular tooth filling but it does take longer. You may find that your jaw muscles ache a bit from having to keep your mouth open wide during the treatment.

Shortly after the treatment, you may find your tooth feels a little bit tender to chew on but this usually only lasts for a couple of days. Any soreness can be reduced with a soft diet and, if necessary, 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 several years.

Learn more about the outcome of root canal procedures and complications that may occur.

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 years (on the NHS).

If you have an infected pulp but opt not to have a root canal treatment, you risk having to have the tooth taken out and, more seriously, the infection spreading inside your mouth or across your face and neck. It could also result in several tooth extractions.

Further reading and references

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