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Root canal therapy Dr Sally Beech Reviewed by Dr Sally Beech, Dentist

If your tooth is infected, root canal treatment may be a way to save it. Find out about the procedure and possible symptoms of needing a root canal.

If tooth decay reaches the centre of your tooth, it might cause an infection, which can be painful. A root canal treatment can help remove the infection and potentially save the tooth.

Root canal therapy (endodontic treatment) may be carried out by a general dentist or a specialist endodontist. Find dentists near you.

What is a root canal?

The root canals are hollow spaces inside the roots of teeth. This space is filled with soft tissue called the dental pulp, which contains blood vessels and nerve endings. If the dental pulp gets damaged or infected by bacteria, this can feel painful and can make a tooth more sensitive to hot and cold.

Root canal treatment involves opening a tooth to remove the infected pulp and replacing it with a synthetic material. The dentist or endodontist will then place a filling or crown over the tooth to improve its strength and appearance. In most cases, a treated tooth functions like normal after a root canal procedure.

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Is a root canal painful?

We’re not going to pretend that root canal treatment is exactly like eating gelato on a summer day, but the procedure has something of an unfair reputation, if you ask us. Infected tooth roots can cause severe pain, swelling and other problems. Root canal treatment might be a solution for those problems and, for many people, can actually stop the pain.

Still, everyone’s pain thresholds and circumstances are different, so be cautious about ads that promise a completely “pain free” or “painless” experience.

Dentists and specialists often use local anaesthetic to numb the mouth during the procedure. Your dentist may also be able to prescribe pain medication to help manage any discomfort.

What are the symptoms of needing a root canal? 

A tooth can become infected if it gets damaged, worn down or exposed to bacteria. This might be a result of tooth decay, advanced gum disease, chips or cracks, teeth grinding,  a broken filling or other causes.

Symptoms of this type of infection can include:

  • a severe toothache, especially while chewing food 
  • sensitivity to hot and cold food and drink (especially if you don’t usually experience this kind of sensitivity)
  • a tooth turning dark or feeling loose
  • swelling of the gums, face or neck.

However, there aren’t always noticeable symptoms. That's why it's important to have regular check- ups with a dentist so they have a better chance of spotting problems.

Root canal treatment may be a way to save an infected tooth. If you don't get treatment, the tooth might eventually become too damaged to save and could fall out or need removal. The infection could also spread to your other teeth.

If your root canal symptoms are accompanied by facial swelling or pus coming out of the gum, this could be a sign of a more serious infection or an abscess. You should consider booking an emergency appointment with a dentist.

What does root canal therapy involve?

Your dentist will take x-rays of your teeth to see if there's an infection and how severe it is. If the infection is serious or it's spread to the bone around the tooth, they may refer you to a specialist endodontist.

After injecting local anaesthetic to numb your mouth, they'll drill into the tooth to access and remove the infected pulp. Next, they'll clean the root canals to remove bacteria and reshape the area to accommodate a filling material.

Once they’ve fully disinfected and prepared the tooth, they’ll insert a filling material and seal the tooth. They may place a dental filling or a dental crown. They’ll usually custom-fit this for your mouth.

It may take more than one appointment to complete root canal therapy, depending on the type of tooth being treated. If so, the dentist will likely cover your tooth with a temporary filling or crown between visits.

What to expect after root canal treatment

You might have pain or swelling around the treated tooth for a few days after root canal therapy. This can be managed with pain relief and anti-inflammatory medication. You should avoid hard foods for the first few days, to give your tooth the chance to heal and to avoid dislodging the crown or filling.

With good oral hygiene, a tooth treated with root canal therapy can last as long as your other teeth. Sometimes a treated tooth can turn grey over time, but it will still function normally.

What are the alternatives to a root canal?

If you have a tooth infection, a root canal is usually the only way to save a tooth. Your dentist might also prescribe antibiotics.

In many cases, the only alternative to a root canal is tooth extraction*, which could be necessary if the tooth is too badly damaged to save. Most dentists will recommend saving a tooth rather than removing or replacing it with an artificial tooth.

Questions?

Find a dental clinic near you. If you have a bad toothache, consider seeking an emergency appointment.

 

*Any surgical or invasive procedure carries risks. Before proceeding, you should seek a second opinion from an appropriately qualified health practitioner.

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The purpose of this article is to promote better understanding of dental health topics. It’s not meant to replace professional advice or diagnosis. Always talk to a dentist, doctor or other qualified healthcare professional if you have a question about dental or medical conditions.

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