Root Canals: What, Why, and How



What is a root canal?

A “root canal”, also known as an “endodontic treatment”, is a dental procedure that removes inflamed or infected tooth pulp. (The name for the procedure, “root canal” is a bit confusing because in fact a “root canal” is also the part of the tooth through which the tooth’s root passes.) Teeth have sensitive nerves in the pulp and when this tooth material becomes infected pain results. Infection can also be located at the base of a tooth, in the form of an abscess, and this can also cause severe pain, and difficulty chewing.
Infection can result from deep tooth decay, cracked or chipped teeth, repeated dental work, or faulty crowns, among other reasons. Fortunately the dental pulp is not a necessary part of a tooth that has finished its primary development, and root canals take this fact into account to provide a means of eliminating pain caused by infection or inflammation.

Why are root canals done?

A root canal provides an alternative to a tooth extraction, offering the benefits of retaining original teeth and preventing the need for dentures, partial dentures, or dental implants.

How are root canals done?

Root canal work entails removing the damaged pulp, filling the root canals, preparing the tooth for fitting a crown, and placing the crown on the tooth.

Removing the damaged pulp

To remove the damaged or infected pulp, the dentist will apply a local freezing and then drill through the upper part of the tooth, down into the tooth’s pulp. A specialized file is used to remove all the pulp of the tooth, right down to the tip of the root (or roots, depending on the tooth). The inside of the tooth and the root canal are then carefully and completely disinfected and prepared for filling.


Filling the root canals

Once the tooth has had its pulp removed, the root canals are filled with a rubber-like material called “gutta percha”, supplied to dentists in pointed sticks to match the taper of the root canal file that was used to remove pulp. Interestingly, gutta-percha (obtained from the sap of certain tropical trees) has a number of characteristics that made it for years a popular substance for furniture and jewellry. Also, a strong demand for gutta percha to cover underwater trans-Atlantic cables led to global shortages of the material for a while in the early 20th century.


Early golf balls were also made with gutta percha cores, but as new synthetic materials were developed gutta percha was eventually displaced in many uses. However, the characteristic of bio-inertness that made gutta percha useful for underwater cables continues to make gutta percha the preferred filler for root canals.


Once the root canals are filled, then regular tooth filling material is used for the upper part of the area previously occupied by the tooth’s pulp.

Preparing the tooth for fitting a crown

Depending on the stability of the remaining tooth and the amount of material left after the preparatory work, posts may be installed to provide a footing for the tooth crown that will be installed. A temporary filling might be used before completing the fitting of the crown, or the crown might be fitted straight away.


Placing the crown on the tooth

Once the tooth has had its pulp removed, root canals filled, and the foundation supplied, a crown is fitted and cemented to the top of the tooth. The finished endodontic treatment leaves a tooth with a new top, — “the crown” –, and the original dentition from the crown down to the tip of the root.


What will I experience when I have a root canal?

Modern root canal work is relatively painless. A root canal is typically completed in one or two visits. The work is sophisticated as far as the dentist as concerned, but as a patient the work will not be very different from the filling of a cavity.
The final result of a root canal treatment is a tooth that to all appearances is the same as the original, and that uses the original tooth’s root and structure to provide an ideal fit into the jaw. At the same time, this tooth will have none of its original pulp and nerve tissue, making it no longer a potential cause of pain from infection.

The decision to have a tooth receive an endodontic treatment depends on a dentist’s expertise, and the professionals at the Sherway Gardens Dental Centre are well suited to assess and perform root canals.

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