At the core of each of your teeth is a mixture of connective tissue, nerves and living cells called pulp. Root canal therapy is a means of treating inflamed or infected pulp, and endodontics is a specific dental specialty dedicated to treating this specific area inside your teeth. Find out what an endodontist does, what their qualifications are and why your general dentist might refer you to one.
What Is an Endodontist?
The American Association of Endodontists (AAE) sums up the profession neatly, stating that endodontists are the tooth-saving specialists of dentistry. According to the American Dental Association, endodontists specialize in both common root canals and more involved tooth-saving treatments, such as surgery involving the pulp. While the need for these treatments can make patients feel nervous or anxious, this group of specialists focuses on pain management techniques and treatments that allow them to save the tooth with as little pain as possible for the patient. In fact, approximately 41,000 root canals take place every day, as the AAE notes.
What is an endodontist required to study? Students looking to become endodontists must complete an undergraduate education, four years of dental school and two to three years of residency in endodontics. Per the American Dental Education Association, the average residency is about 26 months long. To become a board-certified endodontist, the specialists must also pass three rigorous exams in endodontics, says the AAE.
According to the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry, endodontics students study the biology of the tooth pulp and causes behind pulp injury or disease. They also study diagnostics and learn how to treat the area. For programs similar to the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine, students will perform hundreds of root canals and pulp treatments of all types while in residency. Many residencies also require students to do research and publish their findings in a medical journal.
Types of Endodontic Treatments
The field of endodontics includes conventional root canals, pulpotomies, retreatments and surgery (or apicoectomies). Here's an overview of what to expect from certain procedures offered in an endodontist's office.
Root CanalIn a typical root canal, an endodontist removes the pulp, cleans and shapes the root canal, seals the area with a dental material and finishes the treatment with a crown, according to the AAE
PulpotomyA pulpotomy is a similar procedure, more commonly done on primary teeth, to remove the inflamed pulp from the pulp chamber and seal the remaining tooth, as the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry outlines. While a root canal involves removing all the pulp from the chamber and surrounding root system, a pulpotomy is less extensive and doesn't include the root area.
RetreatmentA retreatment may be needed when a patient experiences a tooth trauma, such as a cracked or loose tooth, decay reaching the pulp or when smaller or curved canals are overlooked in an initial tooth treatment. You may also need one if the dental problem wasn't properly fixed the first time, reports the AAE.
ApicoectomyThe AAE explains that an endodontist will sometimes perform a microsurgical procedure called an apicoectomy to open up the gum tissue surrounding a tooth if infection exists around the bony area of the tooth root or if they need to locate small fractures or hidden canals not originally detected.
How an Endodontist Differs From a General Dentist
General dentists and endodontists are both trained to perform root canals. However, endodontists average 25 root canals a week, while a general dentist may only perform two in that time, according to the AAE. General dentists refer, on average, half of their root canal treatments to endodontists. Because endodontists also specialize in pain management in this area, you'll likely see them if you have trouble undergoing local anesthesia. Endodontists also focus on root canal safety and employ cutting-edge tools for a comfortable, pain-free experience.
When to See an Endodontist
The AAE notes that between 60 to 82 percent of all dental emergencies are endodontic emergencies. Endodontists are typically one of the first dental professionals you would see in a dental trauma setting.
Ask your general dentist about an endodontist referral if you're experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- Tooth pain, perhaps after a tooth injury
- Sensitivity to cold or hot food and drinks
- Swelling around your gums, teeth and face
- Tenderness, pus or discoloration in or around a tooth
Reaching out to one of these tooth savers is a wise option to help save your natural teeth and prevent further restorative work in the long run.