Root canal treatment is a dental procedure used to treat infection at the centre of a tooth (the root canal system). It’s also known as ‘endodontics’.
The infection is caused by bacteria that live in the mouth and invade the tooth. This can happen after:
- tooth decay
- leaky fillings
- damage to teeth as a result of trauma, such as a fall
A tooth is made up of two parts. The crown is the part of the tooth that’s visible in the mouth. The root extends into the bone of the jaw, anchoring the tooth in position.
The root canal system contains the dental pulp and extends from the crown of the tooth to the end of the root. A single tooth can have more than one root canal.
The pulp is made up of soft tissue that includes nerves and blood vessels. The pulp will begin to die if it’s infected by bacteria. Bacteria can then multiply and spread. The bacteria and the substances they release will eventually pass out of the end of the root canal through the small hole where the blood vessels and nerves enter. This process will continue because there’s nothing to stop more bacteria passing down the root canal, which causes the tissues around the end of the tooth to become red and swollen. This can make your tooth painful and, in extreme cases, your face may become swollen (known as a dental abscess).
To treat the infection in the root canal, the bacteria need to be removed. This can be done by either removing the tooth (extraction) or attempting to save it by removing the bacteria from the root canal system (root canal treatment). After the bacteria have been removed, the root canal will be filled and the tooth sealed with a filling or crown. In most cases, the inflamed tissue at the end of the tooth will heal naturally. Before having root canal treatment, you will usually be given a local anaesthetic. This means the procedure shouldn’t be painful, and should be no more unpleasant than having a filling.