What Is a Root Canal? A Step-by-Step Guide

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Despite what you may have heard or read online, the goal of a root canal isn't to cause you immense pain. Instead, the goal of the procedure is to save a tooth that is severely infected. As the National Institutes of Health puts it, a dentist performs the procedure to remove bacteria and dying or dead tissue from inside the tooth.

Modern techniques and technology have helped root canals evolve into relatively comfortable treatments that often require no more than one or two trips to the dentist or endodontist.

When Is Treatment Needed?

Usually, root canals are recommended or needed when there is an infection deep within the tooth. The pulp inside the tooth can become infected with bacteria because of an injury or because of a severe, untreated cavity. Without treatment, the infection can become severe enough that the tooth has to be removed. If your dentist has recommended the treatment, here is a step-by-step guide of what you can expect during and after the procedure.

How a Root Canal is Performed: Step by Step

As the American Association of Endodontists points out, a root canal is essentially a four-step process. Treatment is usually performed over two office visits.

  1. Using a needle, the dentist administers local anesthesia to numb the tooth. It's common to feel a bit of a pinch in the area when the needle goes in. After the tooth is numb, the endodontist might place a dental dam, a small sheet of rubber that isolates the tooth to keep it clean and dry during the procedure.

  2. Your dentist will then use very small tools, such as a small drill, to access the inside of the tooth by creating an opening in the top portion of the tooth. Next, the dentist will use small files to clear away the damaged and diseased pulp from the inside of the tooth. He or she will also use the files to shape the inner chamber of the tooth and root and might irrigate the chamber with water to wash away any remaining pulp. Your dentist might also put an antimicrobial solution in the chamber to kill any remaining bacteria and reduce the risk for further infection.

  3. Once the chamber is thoroughly cleaned and dried, the endodontist will fill it. A rubber-like material called gutta percha is often used. Your dentist will close the opening in your tooth with a temporary filling, while you wait for the permanent crown.

  4. After a few weeks, your dentist will finish the treatment by placing a permanent crown or a similar type of restoration on the top of the tooth. Depending on the condition of your natural tooth, the dentist may need to place a small supporting post inside of the root chamber, to make the crown or restoration more stable.

After the Procedure

Taking good care of your teeth and gums is a must after a root canal. You might need to schedule an additional visit with your dentist to X-ray the treated tooth and to make sure that all signs of infection are gone, in addition to twice-yearly dental cleanings and exams. It's important to keep up a good oral care routine at home, including brushing twice a day with a toothpaste that fights germs for 12 hours, such as Colgate Total Advanced Deep Clean toothpaste. With care and attention, a tooth treated with a root canal can stay healthy for the rest of your life.