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What is a Root Canal?

What is a Root Canal?

So your dentist said you need a root canal? Did your brain immediately jump to every dental horror story you’ve heard throughout your life? In reality, root canals have been the victims of some undeserved bad press among dental patients. When asked, most patients don’t even know what a root canal really is. So let me break it down into bite-sized pieces.

Root canals have a bad reputation because they are often needed when you have a toothache, but their entire purpose is to FIX toothaches. Toothaches can happen when the nerve of your tooth becomes inflamed or dies, but what IS the nerve? I like to think of a tooth root as a plumbing pipe, and within the hollow core of that pipe is where the tooth’s blood vessels and nerve endings are. Basically, it’s filled with all of the tissues that give the tooth life and sensation.

Nerves can become inflamed from physical trauma, like a tooth getting hit from a blow to the face, or they can become inflamed from deep cavities in a tooth. Having a deep cavity is irritating to the nerve of a tooth; fixing that deep cavity with a deep filling is irritating to the nerve of a tooth. All of this irritation can lead to the tooth being extra sensitive to hot and cold or hurting for no reason. Eventually, a nerve this irritated will shut down entirely and die. The tooth won’t be sensitive to hot and cold anymore, but it will develop an abscess that can cause pain and swelling.

So when you have an inflamed, or dead nerve inside the pipe that is your tooth root, the only way to calm the tooth down is by doing some pipe cleaning. That’s what a root canal is! Your dentist becomes a tooth plumber who gets inside the pipe, cleans out the sludge that’s causing issues with the tooth, disinfects it to get rid of angry bacteria inside the tooth, and seals it up so that it can’t be re-infected. The root is not removed; only the irritated core of the root is, so you keep the tooth in your mouth. The alternative to a root canal is getting the entire tooth extracted.

Some teeth have one root, and some have more, so sometimes the plumbing is more complicated. Your dentist may refer you to an endodontist, or a root canal specialist, if the tooth has a lot of roots or if the tooth has already had a root canal done in the past.

So if you are told you need a root canal, don’t fret! Some microscopic plumbing is all you need to help get you out of pain, and keep the tooth in your mouth.

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