What is a Root Canal? Here’s What Everyone Needs to Know

Most people know that a root canal is something you want to avoid, but many people don’t know what a root canal actually is.


What is a root canal? When is it needed? What is the process for getting one? We’re answering these questions and more today in order to demystify this common dental procedure.

What is a root canal?

Technically, we all have root canals. A root canal is simply the part of a tooth between the pulp and the roots. 

However, more often, we think of the term “root canal” as the dental procedure used to relieve pain in the root canal due to decay and/or infection. The basic root canal procedure involves removing the nerve and pulp from the inside of the tooth, refilling the tooth, and then sealing it. 


Why might I need a root canal?

Heavy decay or damage to a tooth, tooth pulp, and/or a tooth nerve may lead to a root canal. A root canal is often used when a simple filling would not be enough to heal and protect the tooth.

Signs that you might need a root canal include:

  • Tooth pain that is intense or persistent
  • Tooth sensitivity to eating, touch, and/or hot or cold stimuli
  • Tooth discoloration (an infected tooth often appears darker than a healthy one)
  • A cracked, chipped, or loose tooth


What will happen if I don’t get a root canal?

If you need a root canal, but don’t get one, the bacteria causing the infection in your tooth can spread, causing the infection to spread as well. Left unchecked, these bacteria can create an abscess (a pocket of pus that forms at the tip of the tooth’s roots). This can cause more pain, but it can also result in more serious damage, including bone loss and swelling.

For these reasons, it’s important to follow your dentist’s advice when it comes to getting a root canal. If it is recommended that you get a root canal quickly, schedule one as soon as possible.


What is the procedure like?

During the root canal procedure, your dentist will use a local anesthetic to numb the area and prevent pain during the procedure. He/She will likely use a rubber “dam” to isolate the infected tooth and then drill into the tooth and use special tools to remove infected pulp and the damaged nerve. Then, your dentist will use appropriate filling material to fill in the space left by the extracted pulp and nerve. 

After the root canal is complete, you will need a crown to protect your newly repaired tooth. Your dentist will discuss your needs and options with you before the procedure begins.  


What is recovery like?

Root canals are very effective, and should prevent you from having further pain. That said, during the hours or days following a root canal, you can still experience tenderness in the area, and your dentist may even advise you not to chew with the tooth in question for a while (especially if you need to wait to have your crown placed). 

Complications with a root canal are not common, and your dentist should tell you what to watch out for. Generally speaking, however, signs of potentially spreading infection (including fever, swelling, or excessive pain) would likely warrant a return visit to your dentist.


Related: What You Need to Know About Dental Bridges


Root canals are not exactly enjoyable, but they are often necessary in order to maintain healthy teeth. Rest assured, your dentist will do everything possible to make sure you are comfortable and pain-free during and after the procedure.