What is a Root Canal?

What is a Root Canal?

It’s always difficult for me to tell a patient they need a root canal, because I always anticipate them to cringe.  For whatever reason, root canals have a bad reputation, but they are truly a comfortable procedure.  In addition, they  have little to no recovery time, and they save a tooth!!

Why may your tooth need a root canal?

Basically, “root canals” are performed to save a tooth that is badly decayed, broken, or a tooth whose nerve is “insulted” from a crack, or an existing filling that is large or deep.  These situations can cause damage to the nerve tissue or pulp, resulting in bacterial breakdown and multiplication within the pulp chamber, or central “core,” of the tooth.

Signs or symptoms that you may need a root canal can include:

  • A severe toothache when chewing
  • Prolonged sensitivity to hot or cold, especially if this sensitivity lingers
  • A darkening of the tooth
  • Swelling or tenderness
  • A “pimple” on the gums (this may be a sign of an abscess!)

Sometimes NO SYMPTOMS are present.  Radiographic examination may also determine a need for this procedure.

So, what IS a root canal?

First off, a “root canal” is an endodontic procedure.  The term “Endodontics” is derived from the Greek words endo, meaning “inside,” and odons, meaning “tooth.”

The structure of a tooth looks like this:

Root Canal

Inside the harder outer structures of your tooth  is the inner core of the tooth — the pulp.  Inside the pulp are blood vessels and connective tissue, which provide nourishment to the tooth, and also the nerve, which signals your tooth when it is insulted.

When that inner core of your tooth is insulted and/or infected, it must be removed.  And when it is removed, although your tooth is void of sensory feedback, it can still function as a viable part of your dentition.

First, we numb the tooth so that the procedure is painless.  Thea area is protected from contamination by use of a “rubber dam,”  which isolates the tooth and allows us to work in an aseptic field.  Here’s a picture so that you know what to expect.

rubber damIt looks strange, but it does make it comfortable for both the patient (who can swallow on his/her own and doesn’t have to worry about water spray, etc. from the procedure) and for us!

The next step is to remove the pulp of the tooth, and clean and flush the chamber.  The “root canal” is then filled.

After a tooth has had a root canal, it is more brittle, since it no longer is vital and the living tissue has been replaced with, basically, a type of filling material. Therefore, most teeth need a crown or “cap” after a root canal procedure has been performed to provide adequate protection and strength for function.

How long does it take, and what can I expect?

The procedure itself can take an hour or so, especially if the tooth is prepared for the crown at the same appointment.  After the numbness wears off, some soreness may be felt, which will gradually disappear over a couple days.

But smile, because your tooth has been saved!!

For more information, the ADA has provided the following video:  Mouth Healthy – Root Canals

Or check out our page on Root Canals:  Northstar Family Dental – Root Canals

tiger rct


And since I love animals… I have to share the fact that this tiger did, in fact, have a root canal!

(If you’re ever around Indy, please visit the Exotic Feline Rescue Center… it’s truly amazing.)


So, at the end of the day, do not despair if you need a root canal!  At Northstar, we will do everything we can to ensure that the procedure is comfortable and painless… We will even provide you with a neck pillow, a warm blanket, and your favorite TV channel!!  And, best of all, in a short time your tooth will be as good as new!

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