What Is a Root Canal and Why Is It Needed?

The term "root canal" is often met with groans and twinges of sympathy pain, as this procedure is typically somewhat difficult and painful and not at all pleasant. When person hears that they need a root canal, they may wonder what is involved and if it's even needed in the first place. Note a few factors about root canals and why they're needed so you can talk to your dentist about the procedure if he or she has recommended it for you.

What is a root canal?

A root canal is a type of surgery that is performed on the inside of the tooth, meaning the pulp underneath the hardened surface. This area includes the pulpy substance that covers the tooth roots and nerves.

An endodontist is a special type of dentist who performs a root canal. They do this by opening up the surface of the tooth and then treating this pulp underneath. This treatment may include cleaning the pulp, removing infected tissue or pus that has developed due to an infection, shaping the pulpy area, filling the area if necessary, and then closing the tooth back up. They may then apply sealers or other materials to protect the tooth while it heals.

Depending on the extent of damage or reason for the root canal, an endodontist may open the tooth and realize that the pulpy area cannot be salvaged or there has been too much damage to the tooth covering. In this case, they may recommend an extraction of the tooth altogether.

Who needs a root canal?

A root canal is not as standard as removing impacted wisdom teeth or other such dental surgeries, and is most often performed when someone has developed an infection of the tooth. This infection may set in due to extreme tooth decay or an injury to the tooth. In both cases, the covering of the tooth is compromised so that the pulpy area underneath is then exposed and at a higher risk for infection. 

A crack in a tooth doesn't necessarily mean that you will need a root canal, and neither does having an infection. If a tooth becomes cracked, your dentist may be able to seal this with bonding or another substance to cover it, and the pulp is protected. You may also respond to antibiotics when you have an infected tooth. However, in other cases a root canal may be necessary to alleviate pain and ensure the infection doesn't grow and spread.