A root canal may be one of the most feared dental procedures, but it's nothing to be worried about. Your dentist may recommend root canal therapy if any of your teeth are badly damaged, decayed or infected. This can remove the infection, relieve tooth pain and restore your tooth to good working order.
Root canal treatment (endodontic treatment) is a common dental procedure, but it's still important to know what's involved and what your options are. Your dentist will tell you everything you need to know and answer any questions you have to make sure you're making a decision you're happy with.
What are root canals in teeth?
'Root canal' is the common term for the dental procedure, but the root canals are actually hollow spaces inside the roots of the teeth. Teeth at the front of the mouth generally have a single root, while the chewing teeth (molars and premolars) have two or three. Each root can have multiple canals.
These root canals connect to the large hollow space at the centre of the tooth, called the pulp chamber. This contains the soft tissues, nerves and blood vessels that give the tooth feeling and are important for its growth in childhood and adolescence.
These soft tissues are also vulnerable to infection or inflammation if exposed to bacteria, but this can only happen when the hard outer layers of the tooth are broken down. This is when a root canal procedure may be necessary.
What causes a tooth infection?
The dental pulp may be exposed to bacteria if the enamel and dentine layers of the tooth are broken down. This can happen as a result of oral health problems that are left untreated or other damage to teeth.
Common reasons for root canal treatment include:
- severe tooth decay or acid wear
- advanced gum disease (periodontitis)
- trauma from a dental injury or previous dental treatment
- a cracked filling or other dental restoration
- damage or pressure from grinding or clenching teeth (bruxism)
How do I know if my tooth is infected?
Severe tooth pain and sensitivity are the most common signs of a tooth pulp infection, but they could also point to different issues with your teeth or gums.
You should make an appointment with a dentist if you have any of the following symptoms:
- sudden toothache or pain when biting or chewing
- teeth feel more sensitive to hot, cold or sweet food and drinks
- a tooth feels loose
- a tooth has darkened in colour
- swollen or tender gum around a tooth
- swelling in the face or neck
- a pimple or leaking pus on the gum
A tooth may also be infected without any obvious symptoms. This may only be detected when you visit a dentist for your regular check-up.
When is a root canal needed?
If your dentist thinks you might have a severely damaged or infected tooth, they will examine your mouth and take an x-ray to determine whether a root canal procedure is needed. It may be that your symptoms are caused by another issue that may only need a simpler treatment, such as oral hygiene treatments or placing a filling or crown.
If your dental pulp is infected or damaged, root canal therapy is the best option for saving the tooth. In these cases, the only alternative is to extract the tooth, but dentists consider this a last resort if a tooth is too badly damaged to save. A missing tooth can impact on your appearance and may cause other problems, such as the surrounding teeth leaning into the gap and going crooked.
Not having root canal treatment when it's needed means the bacteria inside your tooth will multiply, leading to a worse infection that could spread to the face or neck or the development of an abscess. This can be extremely painful and put your health at risk, and you may end up losing the tooth.
What does the root canal procedure involve?
Root canal treatments may be provided by a general dentist who is trained and experienced in the procedure, or they may refer you to a root canal specialist called an endodontist if you have a more complex case.
Depending on the size and type of tooth being treated, the treatment could take several appointments to complete. Your dentist will explain what the procedure involves so you know what to expect, but in general there are 5 main stages:
- Planning your treatment
- Removing the infected tissue
- Shaping the root canals
- Sealing the tooth
- Placing the crown
Read more about each of these stages below.
1. Planning your treatment
Your dentist will take one or more x-rays to allow them to see inside your tooth. This lets them see the size and shape of the root canals and check whether signs of infection or inflammation are present. They will use this information to plan your treatment.
2. Removing the infected tissue
Local anaesthesia will be used to numb your mouth and your dentist will place a rubber dam around the tooth being treated for protection. They will then drill a hole in the tooth to access the root canals and carefully remove the damaged tissues.
3. Shaping the root canals
The longest step in the procedure is the disinfecting, shaping and cleaning of the inside of the tooth. This needs to be done carefully and thoroughly to make sure all bacteria is removed. It can sometimes take several visits for a larger tooth with multiple roots.
4. Sealing the tooth
Once the tooth has been sterilised, your dentist will seal it by inserting a rubber compound that fills out the cavity. They may then place a resin filling to cover the hole that was made to open the tooth. If they think your tooth needs strengthening, they may place a support inside before sealing it.
5. Placing the crown
If the treated tooth had extensive damage, your dentist may recommend placing a metal or porcelain crown to restore its former strength and appearance. A crown is a custom made restoration that fits over an existing tooth and can be sculpted and coloured to look just like the real thing.
If your dental clinic uses CEREC crown technology, they may be able to design and manufacture your ceramic crown in a single visit. Traditional porcelain or metal crowns are manufactured off-site in a dental laboratory after taking impressions of your teeth. You will be given a temporary crown to wear until your custom crown has arrived with your dentist.
Does a root canal hurt?
The most common misconception about root canal treatment is that it's painful. Like most treatments, root canal therapy is carried out using local anaesthetic that numbs your mouth and makes the experience virtually painless. If your procedure is more complex or you feel nervous, your dentist can discuss other types of sedation to help you relax.
After the treatment, you should be free from the pain of an infected tooth. Your mouth might feel sore for a few days, which can be managed by taking over-the-counter pain relief medication and following your dentist's advice about what to eat.
What to expect after root canal treatment
Root canal therapy has a very high success rate, especially when it's done by a qualified and experienced dentist. The tooth shouldn't feel sensitive after the pulp has been removed, and it should function as normal. There is a low risk of the tooth becoming reinfected if some bacteria wasn't removed.
Most people can go back to work or resume other activities within a few hours of having a root canal treatment, but this depends on the individual. The treated tooth is likely to feel painful or sensitive for a few days, which can be managed with painkillers or anti-inflammatory medication.
You should be able to eat normally after a few days, when the crown has bonded fully to the tooth. If you're wearing a temporary crown, you should avoid foods that are very hard, chewy or crunchy, as these could risk dislodging it. You should continue to clean your teeth and mouth as normal, taking care around the treated tooth if the gum feels sensitive.
How much does a root canal cost?
The cost of root canal treatment varies depending on the number and size of root canals being treated and other factors. The type of restoration you choose will also impact on the overall cost, with a filling being cheaper than a porcelain crown.
Root canal treatment is normally covered fully or in part by health funds, if your insurance covers general dental services. Your dental clinic may also offer interest-free payment plans or other financial services to help you manage the root canal cost.
Talk to a dentist about root canals in Brisbane
Are you worried that you might have an infected tooth, or want to know more about what the root canal procedure involves?
Call our team at Face Value Dental on (07) 3221 0677 for advice or to book an appointment at your local dental clinic. We have 5 clinics in Brisbane CBD, Albert Street, Albany Creek, Helensvale and Toowong.
Better Health Channel. Root canal treatment [Online] 2019 [Accessed May 2021] Available from: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/ConditionsAndTreatments/root-canal-treatment
Healthdirect. Root canal treatment [Online] 2019 [Accessed May 2021] Available from: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/root-canal-treatment
Healthdirect. Dental crown procedure [Online] 2019 [Accessed May 2021] Available from: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/dental-crown-procedure