Root canal therapy is used to treat an infected tooth, also called an abscessed tooth. An infected tooth is not only painful, it’s dangerous. Once infection has penetrated into the interior of the tooth, it not only threatens that tooth, it can threaten other teeth, your jaw, and even your life. But with a root canal treatment, we can eliminate the infection and preserve your tooth, which can then last for decades, beautifully functioning as a part of a healthy smile. Although many people have been taught to fear a root canal, the truth is that they actually alleviate pain, not cause it.
Symptoms of an Infected Tooth
How do you know if you need root canal therapy? Common symptoms people experience when they have an infected tooth include:
- Spontaneous tooth pain that is intense and lingers
- Lingering sensitivity to heat, cold, or pressure
- Pimples on the gums
- Persistent bad breath or a foul taste in the mouth
- Recurring or serious sinus infections
- Signs of a general infection: fever, fatigue, and swollen lymph glands
The most common symptoms of an infected tooth are pain. It’s caused by the bacteria that are infecting, damaging, and exposing the tooth nerve. That’s why it can cause spontaneous pain. This pain can be so intense that it will wake you from sleep and keep you from falling back to sleep. It may also be so intense that you feel “echo pains” elsewhere in your body.
Because the pulp is exposed, it becomes very sensitive to external stimuli. You can experience intense pain, and that pain can linger for minutes, even an hour.
But it’s important to remember that pain is highly variable. Just because you aren’t experiencing pain or only have minor pain, it doesn’t eliminate the possibility that you have an infected tooth.
When your body is fighting a localized infection, it produces pus. When the infection is in your tooth, this pus can collect in a pimple on your gums. This pimple can actually penetrate through the bone in some cases.
The foul smell of bad breath and an associated taste are related to the bacteria and their excretions. The bacteria in your tooth are often isolated from oxygen, which means they essentially “breathe” sulfur, and produce many smelly sulfur-related compounds.
Infections from your teeth can spread, and one of the most common places they spread to is your sinuses, especially if the infected tooth is on the top of your mouth. If you suddenly start getting recurring sinus infections, you should consider the possibility of an infected tooth.
An infected tooth can also cause symptoms of general infection, such as fever, fatigue, and swollen lymph glands. If you see these and have any other symptoms of an infected tooth, you should seek treatment right away.
The Root Canal Therapy Procedure
In a root canal treatment, we will first image the tooth and decide if the procedure is recommended. Then we will remove enough of the tooth enamel and dentin to allow us to access the interior of the tooth. Once inside the tooth, we will remove all the tooth pulp, including the infected tissue and the uninfected–because once compromised the tooth is vulnerable to future infection.
Then we will fill the tooth with an inert, cushioning material that helps support the tooth but is resistant to infection. If necessary, we will also add a support post to help strengthen the tooth.
Once the procedure is complete, a temporary crown is placed while the permanent dental crown is completed. When the permanent crown is ready, the temporary is removed and the permanent one is placed.
Is a Root Canal Treatment Painful?
Root canal therapy is infamous as being a painful procedure. This reputation has been passed down from the days when dental anesthesia was either unavailable or unreliable. In that situation, a root canal treatment would definitely be painful because it involves removing the nerve from the tooth.
A modern root canal is performed under local anesthesia, potentially even with sedation dentistry to help calm anxiety and reduce discomfort. The result is that the procedure is associated with little to no discomfort. Once the anesthesia wears off, the discomfort is probably comparable to what you felt before the treatment, and within a few days, you will likely experience much less discomfort than you did before your root canal procedure.
Should We Save a Tooth or Replace It?
Of course, when you have an infected tooth, we have to decide if it is worth it to try to save the tooth or if it’s time to replace the tooth with a dental implant.
It’s generally best to save the tooth. Root canals and dental implants have about the same success rate, and over the long-term the root canal might be slightly more successful. In addition, preserving your tooth today will allow us to remove it and replace it later, but if we remove a tooth now, we can’t put it back in in the future.
Of course, every case is different, and after a thorough evaluation we may recommend a dental implant over a root canal in your situation.