Many of us have heard the dreaded term “root canal” when visiting the dentist. If you’ve never had one before, you might have visions of dental torture running through your head: what is a root canal? How is it done? What can you expect after the procedure?
A root canal is a procedure that fixes the tooth by removing the inside of the tooth (the pulp chamber) and fills it with a filling material to make the tooth whole again. This is necessary when the tooth has decayed to the point that the nerve of the tooth is affected in some way.
The tooth is covered by hard enamel. That’s the hard, hopefully white, stuff that covers the part of the tooth you see when you look at your teeth. That visible part of the tooth is called the crown. Under the enamel is a layer of dentin; and under that lies the pulp.
The pulp chamber goes all the way into the root of the tooth – and that chamber is actually called your root canal. You have several of these for each tooth – 2 to 4 for the molars, 1 to 2 for the premolars, 1 to 2 for the cuspids, and 1 for each incisor.
A root canal procedure is actually therapy for that pulp chamber. When the root of the tooth is affected by the decay, it is necessary for the dentist to drill all the way through the tooth, remove the pulp chamber, and replace it with a filler material.
You’ll likely have to take antibiotics, because the decay inside the tooth can make its way into your system, causing you to become ill. For the procedure itself, the dentist will isolate the tooth and disinfect it, separating it from the rest of the teeth with a plastic shield.
Then, the dentist drills all the way into the tooth’s pulp chamber, all the way to the root. The entire area will be numb by this point, and you may elect to receive some sort of sedative so that you aren’t completely aware during the drilling process.
Once the hole is drilled into the tooth, the dentist will use small files to clear away any decay and to actually remove the entire root of the tooth. The dentist might take another x-ray to make sure the root is cleared, because if it isn’t much pain can result.
When the tooth is free of decay, the dentist will dry the tooth, and then fill it with a rubber material called “gutta percha” which will seal the inside of the tooth. The dentist will either put a temporary filling on the tooth, or may suggest that a crown is put on the tooth. This is because the removal of the nerve stops blood flow to the tooth, which can result in the natural tooth becoming brittle.