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What is a Root Canal?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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A root canal refers to the soft tissue inside a tooth, which usually contains the nerves to the tooth. This tissue is located primarily below the gum in the “roots” of the tooth. However, most people who refer to a root canal mean they are having a dental procedure that may remove some of this tissue and its nerves if the tooth has become infected or abscessed.

The precise term for a root canal procedure is a pulpectomy or a pulpotomy. However, the term root canal is so often used, that it will be used in this explanation for greater clarity.

Frequently, particularly among people with adult teeth, a tooth will begin to hurt. One might also notice that the gum around the tooth appears swollen. If the pain is specific to one tooth, the danger is that the soft tissue of the tooth may have become infected.

In some cases, a course of antibiotics can treat the infection without further intervention. More often, however, the tissue inside the tooth must be removed in order to prevent future pain. This root canal procedure is often more feared than necessary. With proper local anesthesia and pre-treatment for infection it takes about the same time as getting two or three fillings done at once.

Sometimes a dentist will perform a root canal procedure on only one root of the tooth. At other times, removal of the soft tissue in all the roots is required. Once the tissue is scraped out and removed, the roots of the tooth are filled with a slightly flexible filling material.

After the root canal is performed, patients can expect to experience mild discomfort for a few days. This is often easily treated with ibuprofen or acetaminophen. A dentist can prescribe a narcotic pain relieve like codeine if pain is not adequately addressed. One will usually be asked to eat soft foods for a day or two.

Continued pain occurring three to four days after a root canal may suggest that not all tissue was removed or infection still persists. One should contact one’s dentist if pain continues after the third day. As well, one should finish any prescribed antibiotics even after the dental procedure to prevent reinfection.

Often performing a root canal means that much of the top of the tooth has been destroyed. This means that within a few weeks of the root canal, a patient will also require a crown. Crowns replace the portion of missing tooth with porcelain, silver or gold filling.

In rare cases, a root canal may only result in a large filling of a permanent nature. This is more rare, and most dentists prefer to use a crown to fit it perfectly to the missing portions of the tooth.

For some, having to get a crown is terrible news, and means a dental procedure beyond their means. In the US, a crown can cost about 800-1000 US dollars (USD). Dental insurance may pay half that, and most dentists will not accept payments. Inability to pay for a crown often means teeth are lost, because the tooth is much more vulnerable after a root canal, and the temporary filling of the canals will only last for a short period of time.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon6031 — On Dec 13, 2007

Crowns are usually placed not because much of the tooth is destroyed when the root canal is done, but because removing the blood supply to the tooth causes it to dry out and makes it brittle. The crown protects this dry, brittle tooth.

By anon399 — On Apr 24, 2007

The root canal is not the tissue inside but the canal that contains the nerve and tissue etc. The term root canal treatment is used to refer to the cleaning out and filling of the canal, but it is usually shortened to root canal. In root canal treatment, all canals in all roots are cleaned out (pulpectomy)otherwise some infection would remain. The only time you partially remove the tissue is when you suspect the nerve is still alive (pulpotomy)and this is quite a different procedure.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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