Learning About Root Canals

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Cross-section of tooth showing its parts: crown, enamel, dentin, root, pulp, and nerve and blood vessels, and the gums and bone around it.

What is a root canal?

A root canal treatment is done to repair a tooth that is damaged by tooth decay or is infected. During a root canal, a dentist or specialist (endodontist) removes the pulp from the center of the tooth down to the tip of the root. Then the dentist fills the empty space.

The pulp is the center (core) of a tooth. It contains nerves and blood vessels. When healthy, the pulp feeds the tooth and helps fight infection. But deep tooth decay or a broken tooth can damage the pulp and lead to a painful infection. A root canal helps relieve the pain and may save the tooth. It stops the infection from spreading to other teeth or the gums, and it helps the tooth heal.

How is it done?

The dentist will completely numb the tooth and the area around it. Next, a small drill and other tools are used to remove all the pulp from the tooth. Then the dentist fills the inside of the tooth below the gum line with a filling material.

The root canal may take more than one visit. This depends on the tooth involved and whether it's infected. If the tooth is infected, the dentist will treat the infection first. The pulp space may get medicine and a temporary filling material. At a later visit, the tooth will get permanent filling material.

After the root canal, a filling or crown might be needed. The dentist makes an imprint or uses a computer to make an image of the tooth. Then a crown is made to match the tooth. The tooth may get a temporary crown until the permanent one is made and cemented in place.

What can you expect after a root canal?

After a root canal, your lips and gums may be numb for a few hours until the anesthetic wears off. Later you may have some pain. You can treat it with pain medicines, such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or a stronger prescription painkiller. The pain usually lasts only a day or two.

If your dentist prescribes antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You'll need to take the full course of antibiotics.

Avoid chewing with the tooth until the crown or filling is in place and the tooth feels better.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.