To better understand what root canal therapy is and why it is a necessary treatment we need to cover some basic tooth anatomy. Teeth are essentially made of three layers: enamel, dentin, and pulp. Enamel is the protective, external layer. In fact, enamel is the hardest substance in the human body. Dentin is the middle layer which is softer than enamel and is similar to bone in composition. The innermost layer, the pulp, is made of soft tissues, including blood vessels and the nerve of the tooth.
Technically speaking a root canal is the space in the root of a tooth through which nerves and blood vessels travel to provide nutrients and sensation to the pulp or center of the tooth. However, when most people ask about a root canal they are referring to a dental procedure known as root canal therapy or RCT. A root canal infection occurs when bacteria normally found in the mouth penetrate the enamel and dentin, either by way of decay or through a fracture and enter into the pulp. Once inside, the bacteria kill the nerve and quickly travel down the root canals due to the soft nature of the pulp. Upon reaching the tip of the root the bacteria exit the tooth and infect the surrounding bone. This is known as a dental abscess and can cause extreme pain and swelling.
Tooth Decay and Caries
Progression of bacterial infection (decay) through enamel and dentin, into the pulp. Once inside, the infection travels down the root canals and out the tips of the roots, causing a dental abscess.
The treatment of choice for most root canal infections is root canal therapy or RCT. Root canal therapy is done by removing the decay from the tooth and cleaning out the pulp chamber and root canals to the tip of the root. Once cleaned and disinfected the root canals are filled with a material that seals the tooth. The tooth is then built up with a filling material and the tooth is prepared for a crown. Due to the fact that a large amount of tooth structure has been removed a tooth that has had RCT is more prone to fracture and a crown is virtually always needed to protect the tooth. Once sealed off from the bacteria in the mouth, the dental abscess can be cleared up by the body’s immune system with or without the aid of antibiotics.
Although root canal therapy removes the nerve from the tooth, the patient may still experience pain while chewing until the dental abscess has healed. This pain can be managed by a combination of anti-inflammatory drugs and prescription pain medication. If you have dental pain and think you may need root canal therapy, give us a call and we’d be happy to see you.