There are few phrases in the English language that can so quickly strike fear in your heart than hearing “you need a root canal”, but for millions of Americans this is what they hear when visiting the dentist. So what exactly is a root canal, and how did it get such a bad reputation? The truth is that these procedures today are fairly simple, relatively painless, and are a great option to preserve your natural tooth rather than getting an extraction and requiring some type of cosmetic dental procedure.
Many dental patients are actually not really clear about what happens during a root canal—they only know it sounds horrible and they don’t want it done. The procedure is something your dentist might recommend when there is a problem with the root of your tooth. To better understand root canals, it might be helpful to get a quick lesson on tooth anatomy. Your tooth consists of:
A root canal is recommended for patients who have decay severe enough that they will not be able to repair it, and is designed to preserve the remaining healthy parts of the tooth so you won’t lose it entirely.
Tooth decay can manifest in several ways, and usually in the early stages it will be in the form of a cavity. Over time, untreated tooth decay can cause damage to the interior of the tooth inside the pulp. When it reaches this stage, the dentist cannot simply give you a filling because your tooth is essentially dead. It might seem weird (and even a little morbid) to keep a tooth inside your mouth that is dead, but the reason a dentist would recommend that is because each tooth plays a critical role in dental health. Pulling the tooth would leave a space that allows other teeth to move around in your mouth, and would lead to a weaker jawbone because the stress of chewing helps keep your jawbone strong. Leaving an infected tooth isn’t an option—it’s extremely painful and would lead to worse infection later—so preserving it through a root canal can provide patients with the best of both worlds.
We’re not saying everyone enjoys root canals, but the procedures have come a long way in recent years, and for someone who has been experiencing the pain of a decaying tooth, a root canal can offer much-needed relief. The dentist will begin by numbing your mouth, then drill into the tooth to find the infected pulp. He or she will carefully clean out all the pulp, prepare the interior of the tooth, and seal it with a substance that prevents future infection. You will go home and let it heal, then return to have a crown placed over the tooth to protect it and allow you to chew and speak normally.
It’s important to note that a root canal is not the right choice for every dental problem, nor is it the right option for every patient. However, if your dentist recommends it as the best way to preserve your teeth from damage, it’s important to know a little more about it before deciding if you should proceed.