The mention of a root canal evokes fear and dread in most dental patients, with visions of swollen, puffy cheeks and extreme tooth pain. In movies and TV even the phrase root canal is accompanied by dramatic moans and drawn expressions. The truth is, today’s root canals are about as simple and straightforward as getting a filling. The process might sound scary and invasive, but qualified dentists and endodontists can resolve deep cavity issues prompting root canal treatments with minimal discomfort. Below, we explain what’s involved in root canals to help resolve any unnecessary fears.

What Is a Root Canal?

Understanding the root canal treatment starts with the anatomy of the tooth. Inside your teeth, under the white enamel and another hard layer called dentin, lies soft tissue called pulp. Tooth pulp contains the blood vessels and nerves necessary for creating the surrounding white enamel and dentin, but after the tooth is fully developed, pulp simply serves as a foundation to hold the tooth in place.

Tooth pulp begins at the very center of a tooth’s crown and extends down to the tips of the tooth root. It encases the tooth nerve and helps form the connective tissue between the tooth and gums. Teeth do not need the pulp to remain healthy though—they can still be nourished by surrounding tissues without the pulp, and a tooth’s nerve is not a necessity to health or function once the tooth is fully formed.

A root canal treatment removes infected pulp and nerve and fills the tooth’s root canals with dental materials to hold the tooth in place.

Reasons for Root Canal Treatment

Root canal treatments resolve deep infections or inflammations within a tooth. They are usually the result of an untreated cavity—decay or infection that causes a hole in the hard tissues of the teeth. The infection progresses through the enamel and dentin into the pulp. If the infection has progressed enough, it can cause an abscessed tooth—a pocket of infection in the tooth’s root.

Abscesses can then spread infection to other areas of the face, head, and neck or cause damage to the bone around the tooth root. The pus that fills the abscess might push additional holes in the tooth or even push through the cheek as it attempts to drain.

Because tooth pulp is filled with blood vessels and nerves, infection can cause acute pain. An abscessed tooth intensifies this pain as the infection not only inflames nerves and tissues but puts pressure on the surrounding areas. Root canal treatment aims to resolve this pain while saving the tooth by removing and disinfecting the root canal. Root canal treatments can also be employed if the pulp and nerve become irritated after repeated dental procedures.

Some common issues that lead to root canal treatment include:

  • Cracked crowns or damaged fillings
  • Deep or untreated cavities
  • Repeated dental procedures that irritate the tooth
  • Chips and cracks in the tooth
  • Invisible injury to the tooth or previous trauma

How to Know If You Need a Root Canal

The most obvious symptom of tooth decay is pain or sensitivity. As the tooth nerve’s only real job is to sense hot and cold, sensitivity to hot and cold that lingers can be a key sign that your tooth nerve is inflamed, and you might need a root canal. Other symptoms include:

  • Swollen, tender gums
  • Darkening of the gums or tooth discoloration (a sign of decay)
  • Pimples on the gums
  • Chipped or cracked teeth
  • Sharp pain when chewing
  • Spontaneous tooth pain that wakes you up at night
  • Loose tooth

Tooth pain and sensitivity could have many other causes, of course, including a cavity, damaged filling, or gum disease. However, since the roots of tooth pain can often lead to root canals if untreated, its best to see your dentist for any persistent tooth pain.

What Is Involved in the Root Canal Process?

During root canal treatment, an endodontist or dentist carefully cleans the infected pulp out of the root canal, filling and sealing the remaining space. This helps preserve as much of the natural tooth as possible—the alternative being to pull the tooth. Saving the tooth has multiple advantages, including keeping your normal bite and smile, maintaining bone and protecting your other teeth from additional wear.

The root canal process follows a few key steps:

  • Exam & Prep: Your dentist or endodontist performs x-rays to determine the extent of the infection, then will administer a local anesthetic to the area around tooth. Once the affected area is numb, they will place a dental dam over the decaying tooth to isolate it from the rest of your mouth and keep it clean and dry during the procedure.
  • Drilling: Your dentist uses a drill to make an opening at the crown of the tooth, then extracts the infected pulp. It sounds scary, but since the tooth is numbed, there should be NO PAIN to the patient. Modern dental instruments mean that this takes minimal time—both because drills are efficient and because endodontists have very fine instruments that allow them to clean the infected pulp out of the root canal and shape the space for filling with minimal invasion. Water or sodium hypochlorite helps flush any debris.
  • Sealing: Once the infection has been removed from the root canal, your dentist fills the area with a rubber-like material called gutta percha. Dental cement holds the gutta-percha in place, sealing the root canal. Some dentists will wait a week or so before sealing the tooth to ensure the infection has fully resolved. In this case they’ll place a temporary filling instead.
  • Placing a Crown: The dentist completes the tooth restoration with a permanent crown that seals the hole created by the decay and any drilling. Teeth with extensive decay might need a crown and post or other restoration to prevent breaking or additional infection. Keeping the tooth sealed is the most important part to prevent the treatment from failing, which is why a crown is so important.
  • Recovery: Anesthesia makes the procedure itself relatively painless, but the affected area is usually sore or numb and might cause discomfort for a few days—similar to having wisdom teeth pulled. Patients can usually return to regular activities within 2 to 4 hours. You can resume eating once the numbness has fully worn off.

From start to finish, root canal treatment generally only takes a few hours over the course of one or two visits to your dentist.

Why Are So Many People Afraid of Root Canals?

Root canal procedures have a bad reputation as the most painful dental treatment, but studies found that only 17 percent of people agree with that description after actually receiving a root canal. These days, having a root canal treatment is pretty akin to having a cavity filled. Thanks to modern dental techniques, it can be completed relatively painlessly in one to two appointments.

The likely cause of the root canal treatment’s bad rap is the intense pain people suffer before undergoing it. Nerve pain is notoriously intense and difficult to remediate, and nerves are almost always involved when a root canal becomes necessary. It’s easy to understand the fears that arise when a dentist reveals that drilling a hole into the tooth is the key way to resolve such acute pain.

Painless Root Canals from a Knoxville Dentist

Fear not! A root canal is a simple procedure that provides almost immediate relief to tooth pain. Regular visits to a qualified Knoxville dentist like University General Dentists can help you treat the causes of tooth decay before a root canal becomes necessary or administer a quick and painless root canal treatment. University General Dentists has more than 30 years of experience and a long history of training the next generation of dentists. Schedule an appointment at our UT Medical Center office at 865-305-9440 or at our West Knoxville office at 865-500-5700.