Endodontics 101

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General dentists are great for those times when you need to have your teeth cleaned or a cavity filled. In some cases though, you're better off consulting a specialist. Orthodontists, for example, specialize in straightening and aligning the teeth, periodontists focus on the gums and bone, and endodontists focus on endodontics, or issues concerning the roots of the teeth. While general dentists can perform the procedures and treatments offered by specialists, dental specialists have received additional years of training and have decided to focus their practice on treating specific dental conditions.

Here's a crash course on endodontists and when you may have to visit this specialist.

Understanding Endodontics

As the American Dental Association points out, the term "endodontics" derives from the Greek words "endo," which means "inside," and "odont," which means tooth. So the job of an endodontist is to treat the inside of the teeth.

Often, the goal in endodontics is to save the tooth. Instead of simply pulling a diseased or damaged tooth, an endodontist clears the infection and decay to protect the interior of the tooth from further damage. Root canals are the treatment endodontists are most well-known for performing on a patient's tooth.

During a root canal, the endodontist performs local anesthesia on the gum tissue around the tooth and then removes the infected tissue and pulp from inside the tooth. He or she then deep cleans the chamber that held the pulp and the roots, removing any lingering bacteria. Once all traces of infection are gone and the interior of the tooth is fully dry, the endodontist fills the chamber and roots with a special material called gutta-percha. Depending on how the exterior of the tooth looks, the endodontist will work with the dentist who will finish the treatment by placing a crown or other type of dental restoration on the tooth to protect it.

An endodontist can also perform surgery to correct a tooth that didn't fully heal after a root canal or can perform an apicoectomy, a surgery that removes the tip of a tooth's roots. Although the work endodontists do is often associated with infection and severe decay, they can also work to save teeth that have been damaged by injury.

When Should You See an Endodontist?

If you have pain in a tooth or teeth or a history of injury to the teeth that can affect the roots and pulp, your general dentist is likely to refer you to an endodontist. Why see an endodontist when a general dentist is usually capable of and allowed to perform root canals and other treatments?

For one thing, endodontists have more training in root canals than general dentists. They not only have an extra two years of education beyond dental school, as the American Association of Endodontists (AAE) points out, they are also better trained in and experienced with using advanced technology to improve your comfort during the treatment and to improve the results of the treatment. The average endodontist performs about 25 root canals each week, while a general dentist usually performs two per week.

It's very likely that your general dentist will advise you to see an endodontist if he or she thinks you need to be seen by this dental specialist for further evaluation. As the AAE notes, about half of all general dentists refer patients in need of a root canal to an endodontist. You can also choose to schedule an appointment with an endodontic specialist if you have pain in your teeth, notice that a tooth is cracked or if a tooth has been knocked out or shifted out of position.

Your general dentist can help keep your teeth and gums clean and healthy and can be a great resource when you have problems with your teeth. You also have the power to keep your teeth healthy at home with a great oral hygiene routine, which may include brushing with a toothpaste like Colgate Total Advanced Deep Clean, which helps prevent plaque, gingivities, tartar build-up and cavities. But if you need a specific treatment, such as a root canal, you're usually better off calling in the help of a specialist.