Root canal treatment (also called endodontics) is needed when the blood or nerve supply of the tooth (known as the pulp) is infected through decay or injury. It is most often needed in teeth which have deep fillings, or in teeth which have deep dental decay.
You may not feel any pain in the early stages of the infection. In some cases, your tooth could darken in colour which may mean that the nerve of the tooth has died (or is dying). This would need root canal treatment.
If the pulp becomes infected, the infection may spread through the root canal system of the tooth. This may eventually lead to an abscess. An abscess is an inflamed area in which pus collects and can cause swelling of the tissues around the tooth. The symptoms of an abscess can range from dull ache to severe pain and the tooth may be tender when you bite. If root canal treatment is not carried out, the infection will spread and the tooth may need to be taken out.
The aim of root canal treatment is to remove all possible infection from the root canal. The root is then cleaned and filled to prevent any further infection.
Root canal treatment is a skilled and time-consuming procedure. Most courses of treatment will involve two or more visits to your dentist.
At the first appointment, the infected pulp is removed and any abscess which may be present is drained. The root canals are then cleaned, disinfected and shaped until ready for the permanent root filling. Once the dentist is confident that the infection is gone, the root filling (a rubber material) is compressed into the canals to permanently seal them. A normal filling is then needed on top of the root filling to restore and seal the tooth. Sometimes a crown may be required to restore the affected tooth.
If a tooth has a particularly difficult shape, or a complicated root canal system, it is possible to refer to a specialist who can use advanced techniques and instruments to treat your tooth. Sometimes extraction of the tooth is the only option if treatment fails.