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James Willis, DDS
Just What Is a Root Canal?
Burke Dental Center

Just What Is a Root Canal?

Do you know what it means when your dentist tells you that you need a “root canal”? Your lack of understanding can only be blamed on the dentist who fails to explain clearly the diagnosis and recommended course of treatment.

I have found that a well-informed patient who understands the advantages and disadvantages of all potential treatment plans has a much higher appreciation for the recommended treatment, and is therefore better able to decide on a treatment plan compared to a patient who is given no such explanation.

In order to understand what root canal therapy (RCT) is, you must first have a basic understanding of the anatomy of a tooth. In general, the portion of a tooth outside of the gums is called the crown; the portion below the gums is called the root.

Nerves and blood vessels enter the tooth through a tiny hole in the tip of the root and travel through a hollow canal to a chamber the center of the crown. The hollow canal in the root is called the root canal; the chamber at the center of the crown is called the pulp chamber.

When a root canal or pulp chamber is compromised due to infection, decay, or trauma, the nerve becomes irritated. The soft tissue within the root canal and pulp chamber may become inflamed and swell.

Since the inside of a tooth offers little space for expansion during swelling, pressure builds up within the tooth and can lead to intense pain. Often the pressure forces the infection out the tip of the root and into the surrounding soft tissue and bone. This causes an abscess in the bone around the root.

RCT is a procedure in which a dentist cleans the infection out of the pulp chamber and root canal and seals the canal to guard against recurrent infection. Many teeth have more than one canal. In fact, some teeth have 3, 4, 5, or even more canals which must be treated.

The procedure begins with the dentist acquiring access to the pulp chamber, usually through the biting surface of the tooth. The dentist carefully removes all debris and soft tissue from the pulp chamber and root canal.

When the dentist has fully cleaned and shaped the root canal and pulp chamber, the root canal is then filled with Gutta Percha, a natural material specifically designed to seal the root canal from the apex of the root to the orifice where the root canal opens into the pulp chamber.

After the root canal is filled, the dentist fills the chamber with another material, usually a resin-based


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