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Most of us try to keep our teeth clean and looking nice. But we don’t think much about what’s inside our teeth—until something goes wrong. When problems develop inside a tooth, root canal therapy may be the only way to rescue it.
The parts of a tooth include:
The crown. This part of the tooth is above the gumline. It has a hard surface for biting and chewing.
The root. Below the gumline, the root anchors the tooth to the bone.
The pulp. The middle of the tooth (the pulp chamber) contains the pulp. This soft tissue is made up mainly of blood vessels and nerves.
The root canal. This is the pathway from the pulp chamber to the nerves and blood vessels in the jawbone.
Pulp problems most often occur when decay or an injury damages the tooth’s crown, exposing the pulp. Once this happens, the pulp becomes inflamed. Bacteria in the mouth can infect and kill the pulp. The infection can then spread throughout the pulp chamber and the root canal. If it reaches the tip of the root, it can invade the bone and, in some cases, form an abscess (pocket of pus). If this process isn’t stopped, it leads to bone and tooth loss.
Root canal therapy can save a tooth whose pulp has died. The earlier the tooth is treated, the less pain, trouble, and expense you’ll face. And though many people believe that root canal therapy is painful, this is just a myth: The treatment rarely causes discomfort.
Root canal therapy consists of removing the inflamed or infected pulp. The first step is to make an opening in the crown. The dentist then cleans the pulp chamber and root canals. These spaces are later filled with a rubber-like substance called gutta-percha, which acts as a permanent bandage. Finally, restoring the crown of the tooth protects the tooth from further damage or infection. The goals of treatment are to:
Relieve pain and other symptoms.
Stop any infection and prevent its spread.
Save the tooth from having to be extracted.
Root canal therapy has a high rate of success. If complications do occur, they are often minor and can be treated. Risks and possible complications include:
Pain or infection
Reaction to medication or anesthesia
Sore jaw joint and surrounding muscles
Separated (broken) instrument
Need for additional treatment, such as endodontic surgery