This factsheet is for people who are having root canal treatment, or who would like information about it.

Root canal treatment involves removing infected tissue from your tooth, cleaning it and then filling it to prevent further damage or infection. Root canal treatment can save a tooth that would otherwise have to be taken out.

You will meet the dentist carrying out your procedure to discuss your care. It may slightly differ from what is described here as it will be designed to meet your individual needs.Details of the procedure may also vary from country to country.

About root canal treatment
What are the alternatives?
Preparing for root canal treatment
What happens during root canal treatment?
What to expect afterwards
Recovering from root canal treatment
What are the risks?

 
 

About root canal treatment

 
In the middle of your teeth there is a core of blood vessels and nerves called pulp. The pulp sits inside a space called the root canal. Each tooth can have one or more root canals. Your front teeth often have just one root canal, whereas your back teeth may have three or more.

The pulp in your tooth can become infected with bacteria if your tooth becomes damaged. This can happen in a number of ways. These include:

  • severe tooth decay
  • an injury, such as a blow to your mouth
  • cracked or loose fillings, or repeated fillings in your tooth
  • gum disease

 
If the pulp in your tooth becomes infected this can spread to the root canal and your tooth may become painful. If the infection spreads further it can cause a tooth abscess, which is a collection of pus. This can be painful and tender when you bite down on your tooth and can cause swelling around your tooth and jaw. Sometimes your tooth may look darker in colour than your other teeth, which means that the nerve inside your tooth is dead or dying. Without treatment the infection may spread further into your jawbone and you may need to have the tooth taken out.

The aim of root canal treatment is to remove the damaged pulp and the bacteria that are causing the infection. Your dentist will drill a hole into the tooth to the root canal and remove the pulp and infected tissue. He or she will then clean and fill the empty root canal and put a permanent seal over the top of your tooth.

Root canal treatment can save a tooth which would otherwise need to be taken out. When a tooth is removed it can affect how you look and also how well you chew. Although your dentist will remove nerves and blood vessels from your tooth when the pulp is taken out, your tooth will continue to live. This is because the surrounding tissues provide it with the blood and nutrients it needs.

 

Area treated when you have root canal therapy

 
Root canal treatment can often be done in one session, or you may need to have treatment over more than one session. How long treatment takes will depend on how severe the problem is. Your dentist may carry out root canal treatment, or your dentist may refer you to an endodontist – a dentist who specialises in root canal treatment.
 

 What are the alternatives?

 
Sometimes damaged teeth can't be repaired with root canal treatment. This is usually if your tooth is badly damaged or if you have severe gum disease which prevents your tooth from healing or being well supported after treatment. In this case your dentist may suggest you have the tooth removed (extracted).
 

Preparing for root canal treatment

 
Your dentist will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history and any previous treatment you have had on your teeth.

Your dentist will also take an X-ray of your tooth. This can help to show how far any infection has spread, if there is an abscess and how many root canals your tooth has.

Root canal treatment is usually done under local anaesthesia. This completely blocks pain from the jaw area and you will stay awake during the procedure. If you're concerned about having a local anaesthetic, talk to your dentist.

Your dentist will discuss with you what will happen before, during and after your procedure, and any pain you might have. This is your opportunity to understand what will happen, and you can help yourself by preparing questions to ask about the risks, benefits and any alternatives to the procedure. This will help you to be informed, so you can give your consent for the procedure to go ahead, which you may be asked to do by signing a consent form.

What happens during root canal treatment?

 
If you need a local anaesthetic, your dentist will give it to you a few minutes before the procedure, to give it time to work. He or she will separate your tooth from the rest of your mouth using a thin sheet of rubber called a dam. This helps to stop the spread of any infection and prevents you from swallowing or breathing in any small instruments or fluids used during the procedure.

Your dentist will make a hole in the top of your tooth and remove the dead or diseased pulp. He or she will then clean out the empty hole using a fluid that also helps to get rid of any infection. The hole in your tooth may need to be widened to make sure it can be filled properly, and is done using small files. This can take several hours and may have to be done over more than one visit. If the root canal is severely damaged, this may be all the treatment you have during your first visit. Your dentist will put a temporary filling in your tooth to keep it sealed until you go back for the next stage of your treatment. However, if your tooth isn't severely damaged your dentist may put a permanent filling in and seal the tooth. He or she may take an X-ray to check it before your tooth is filled.

If you have a temporary filling, your dentist will remove this and replace it with a permanent one when you go back for your next appointment. He or she will then seal your tooth to prevent infection and further damage. If there is a risk that your tooth may become damaged again your dentist may suggest having a crown fitted. This is an artificial cap that fits over your tooth.
 

What to expect afterwards

 
You will usually be able to go home when you feel ready. After a local anaesthetic it may take several hours before the feeling comes back into your mouth.

You may need pain relief to help with any discomfort as the anaesthetic wears off. If you need pain relief, you can take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol (acetaminophen). Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.

 

Recovering from root canal treatment

 

Your root canal treatment should be checked by your dentist after a year. You will have an X-ray and your dentist will check for any pain, swelling or signs of infection or damage. You may need to have further checks over the next four years if there is any sign of damage, or if your tooth doesn't heal properly. Some people need to have further root canal treatment.

After your treatment, it's important to take care of your repaired tooth. Brush your teeth twice a day, floss between your teeth every day and have sugary foods or drinks only at mealtimes. You can also take care of your teeth by visiting your dentist regularly for a check-up.

 

What are the risks?

 
As with every procedure, there are some risks associated with root canal treatment. We have not included the chance of these happening as they are specific to you and differ for every person. Ask your dentist to explain how these risks apply to you.
 

Side-effects

Side-effects are the unwanted but mostly temporary effects you may get after having the procedure.

Cleaning your teeth may cause slight tenderness, but this is only temporary. If you have severe pain or any pain or discomfort that gets worse, see your dentist.
 

Complications

Complications are when problems occur during or after the treatment.

It's unlikely that you will have any further problems after root canal treatment. If your tooth doesn't heal properly, or becomes damaged or infected, you can have root canal treatment done again. This is called re-treatment.

.
 
Can I have root canal treatment and a crown placed on top during the same appointment?
How long will the restored tooth last?
What are my options if the root canal infection returns?
What foods should I avoid after root canal treatment?
 
 

Can I have root canal treatment and a crown placed on top during the same appointment?

 
Usually root canal treatment is done over two or three appointments. After having the diseased pulp (living tissue) removed from the root canal, your dentist may want to leave your tooth open for a few days. This is to allow time for it to drain and the infection to clear, before he or she puts in a permanent filling and fixes a crown over your tooth.
 

Explanation

Root canal treatment often involves between one to three visits to your dentist. During your first visit, your dentist removes the diseased pulp. The pulp chamber and root canal(s) of your tooth are then cleaned and sealed. Medicines may be put in the pulp chamber and root canal(s) to help get rid of germs and prevent or treat an infection. Your dentist may then leave your tooth open for a few days to allow it to drain and settle. You may also be given medicine to help treat infection that may have spread beyond your tooth.
 
During your second visit to the dentist, the pulp chamber and root canal(s) are cleaned and filled with a permanent filling. In the final step, a gold or porcelain crown is usually placed over the tooth. This may be done during your second visit or at a third appointment.
 

Further information

British Dental Health Foundation
0845 063 1188 (dental helpline)
www.dentalhealth.org.uk
 
British Endodontic Society
www.britishendodonticsociety.org.uk

Sources

 

How long will the restored tooth last?

 
Your root-treated tooth could last a lifetime if you maintain good dental hygiene.
 

Explanation

Your treated tooth will stay healthy as long as the root is nourished by the tissues around it. After treatment it's important that you take care of your repaired tooth as you would any other. Brush your teeth at least twice a day and visit your dentist regularly. Your root-treated tooth could last a lifetime if you maintain good dental hygiene. Crowns, however, last about 10 to 15 years and will need replacing.
 

Further information

British Dental Health Foundation
0845 063 1188 (dental helpline)
www.dentalhealth.org.uk
 
British Endodontic Society
www.britishendodonticsociety.org.uk

Sources

 
 
 
 

What are my options if the root canal infection returns?

 
Root canal treatment can be repeated if the infection returns.
 

Explanation

It's possible for the roots to become re-infected, especially if you don’t have good dental hygeine. If this happens, your dentist may recommend repeat root canal treatment. If your tooth is badly infected, your dentist may suggest removing the tooth completely and replacing it with a false tooth.
 

Further information

British Dental Health Foundation
0845 063 1188 (dental helpline)
www.dentalhealth.org.uk
 
British Endodontic Society
www.britishendodonticsociety.org.uk

Sources

 
 
 

What foods should I avoid after root canal treatment?

 
It's best to limit sugary and acidic food and drink, as well as alcohol and smoking.
 

Explanation

After treatment, it's important that you take care of your repaired tooth as well as the rest of your teeth. Limit sugary and acidic food and drink, as well as alcohol and smoking, as these encourage tooth decay and erosion.
 
Drinking alcohol and smoking are associated with a higher chance of developing mouth cancer. Smoking also stains your teeth and increases your risk of gum disease and tooth loss. Alcoholic drinks, and the mixers used with them, often contain a lot of sugar, and so increase the risk of tooth decay.

Further information

British Dental Health Foundation
0845 063 1188 (dental helpline)
www.dentalhealth.org.uk
 
British Endodontic Society
www.britishendodonticsociety.org.uk

Sources

 
 
 

Related topics

 
Caring for your teeth
Dental injuries
Gum disease
Having a tooth removed
Tooth whitening
X-ray
 
 

Further information

 
British Dental Health Foundation
0845 063 1188 (dental helpline)
www.dentalhealth.org.uk
 
British Endodontic Society
www.britishendodonticsociety.org.uk

 
Sources

 

  • Patient information. British Endodontic Society. www.britishendodonticsociety.org.uk, accessed 25 October 2011
  • Root canal treatment. British Dental Health Foundation. www.dentalhealth.org, accessed 25 October 2011
  • Quality guidelines for endodontic treatment; consensus report of the European Society of Endodontology. Int Endod J 2006; 39:921–30.
  • Caring for my teeth. British Dental Health Foundation. www.dentalhealth.org, accessed 25 October 2011
  • Crowns. British Dental Health Foundation. www.dentalhealth.org, accessed 25 October 2011
  • Crowns. BDA Smile (British Dental Association). www.bdasmile.org, accessed 25 October 2011
  • FAQs. BDA Smile (British Dental Association). www.bdasmile.org, accessed 25 October 2011

Produced by Rebecca Canvin, Bupa Health Information Team, March 2012

This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been peer reviewed by Bupa doctors. The content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional.
 

 

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