Why Root Canal Therapy Isn’t What You Imagined

One of the most deeply misunderstood dental procedures is the root canal.  Maybe part of the problem comes from the ominous-sounding name. After all, words like “crown,” “cap,” and “bridge” all have a more familiar ring to them. But did you know that the term “root canal” itself is frequently misapplied? 

“Root canal” refers to the inner chamber of the tooth — specifically, the pulp tissue where the blood vessels, nerves, and connective tissue are located. When you need work done in the interior of the tooth, this process is typically referred to as root canal therapy, or treatment (also known as endodontic treatment). So how long does a root canal take?” When is the treatment necessary? What happens after the procedure? We examine these questions and other common concerns about root canal treatment below.

The Real Reason to Worry—Infection

Young African-American executive touches his jaw as he winces from the pain of a toothache.An infected tooth is the most common reason why people seek endodontic treatment. Infection may occur as a result of:

  • Deep decay
  • Repeated dental procedures on the tooth
  • Faulty crown
  • Crack in the tooth

Any of these problems can lead to a situation in which the pulp tissue becomes exposed to harmful bacteria. Once it becomes infected, root canal treatment is the only way to save the tooth

Oftentimes, the causes of infection go unnoticed until the pain sets in. By the time you realize that you need to see an endodontist, the pain may be quite severe. However, because anesthesia is used during the procedure, you shouldn’t feel anything at all during treatment. Afterward, your tooth may feel a bit sore or numb, but any discomfort should resolve itself within a few days. The pain that people so often associate with a root canal is in fact due to the infection — not the treatment. 

What Does Root Canal Treatment Involve?

Maybe you’re dreading the prospect of root canal treatment because you have unrealistic ideas about its duration. How long do you think a typical procedure would take? Four hours? Five? Six?

Most people drastically overestimate root canal treatment time, which averages at about 90 minutes per visit (in one or two visits). During the procedure, an opening is made through the top of the tooth and the infected pulp is removed from the chamber. The canals are cleaned with sodium hypochlorite or another disinfecting solution. Then, the endodontist will shape the canals to ensure that all infected structures are removed. 

A series of X-rays will be taken throughout the procedure to check that the canals are being adequately cleaned and shaped. If the root canal treatment requires two visits, the endodontist will place calcium hydroxide in the canal to kill bacteria. An antibiotic may also be prescribed to help fight infection. Then, a temporary filling will be placed to seal the opening until the second appointment. If the tooth can be treated in a single appointment, the endodontist will go straight to filling the root canal and then place a crown to seal the tooth.

When Is Root Canal Treatment Necessary?

You may be surprised to learn that a tooth’s nerve is not essential to its continuing health and functioning. The presence or absence of the nerve will not affect its daily functioning. It is because of this fact that endodontic treatment is preferable to extraction. While the tooth may be more susceptible to fracture after the procedure, it will keep functioning normally even once the nerve has been removed. 

Endodontic treatment is required when the pulp is damaged, whether from trauma or infection. The bacteria and damaged pulp remnants can cause an infection and even progress into an abscess, which is a pocket of pus that forms in the tooth. An abscess is a very serious condition that can spread deeper into the jaw, surrounding tissues, and even other parts of the body. Root canal treatment is the only way to prevent infection in the tooth from progressing further.

How Do I know If I Need a Root Canal?

Tooth pain the most common symptom of a tooth requiring root canal therapy. If the tooth is still alive, you will experience extreme sensitivity to hot and cold temperatures. The tooth may start hurting spontaneously, even when you’re not using the affected tooth to eat or drink. This pain can progress into a severe, generalized headache. If the nerve root has died and becomes abscessed, you will only feel pain when putting pressure on the tooth. An abscess may cause severe swelling of the surrounding area, which would indicate the need for emergency treatment. 

Intense toothache can masquerade as root canal pain but may actually be a symptom of another condition requiring a different treatment. For example, the tooth root can become exposed due to gum disease, creating a sensitivity not unlike root canal pain. Sinus congestion can also put pressure on the upper teeth, which can also imitate nerve pain when you’re chewing. Thus, it is very important to receive a thorough examination of pulp vitality from an endodontist for a proper diagnosis. 

What Comes After Treatment?

After performing a root canal treatment, the endodontist will apply a permanent tooth filling to protect it from bacteria. A custom made restoration, such as a crown, will be placed over the filling to support the weakened tooth. If the tooth has lost considerable structure due to cracks or extensive decay, porcelain or gold alloy materials may be needed. Once the crown is placed, the treated tooth will be indistinguishable from any of your other teeth.

How Hard Is it to Find an Affordable Endodontist?

Penn Dental Medicine performs endodontic treatments at discounted rates for all our patients. As an institution of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, we provide premium care through our student dentists overseen by experienced dental professionals. How long does a root canal take at Penn Dental Medicine? Generally speaking, patients will typically experience slightly longer treatment times in exchange for our more affordable rate. 

If you’ve been experiencing deep tooth pain, sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures, or a severe headache that started as a toothache, then you should seek immediate care from an endodontist. To schedule a consultation for a low cost root canal at Penn Dental Medicine, please call us at 215-898-8965.