Since patients are given anesthesia, a root canal isn’t more painful than a regular dental procedure, such as a filling or getting a wisdom tooth removed. However, a root canal is generally a bit sore or numb after the procedure, and can even cause mild discomfort for a few days.
Root canals are needed for a cracked tooth from injury or genetics, a deep cavity, or issues from a previous filling. Patients generally need a root canal when they notice their teeth are sensitive, particularly to hot and cold sensations.
There are a few symptoms that mean you might need a root canal—
- Severe pain while chewing or biting
- Pimples on the gums
- A chipped or cracked tooth
- Lingering sensitivity to hot or cold, even after the sensation has been removed
- Swollen or tender gums
- Deep decay or darkening of the gums
Although you will most likely be numb for 2-4 hours following the procedure, most patients are able to return to school or work directly following a root canal. However, it is advised against eating until the numbness is completely gone.
As occasionally happens with any dental or medical procedure, a tooth may not heal as expected after initial treatment for a variety of reasons:
- Narrow or curved canals were not treated during the initial procedure.
- Complicated canal anatomy went undetected in the first procedure.
- The placement of the crown or other restoration was delayed following the endodontic treatment.
- The restoration did not prevent salivary contamination to the inside of the tooth.
In other cases, a new problem can jeopardize a tooth that was successfully treated. For example:
- New decay can expose the root canal filling material to bacteria, causing a new infection in the tooth.
- A loose, cracked or broken crown or filling can expose the tooth to new infection.
- A tooth sustains a fracture.
First, the endodontist will discuss your treatment options. If you and your endodontist choose retreatment, the endodontist will reopen your tooth to gain access to the root canal filling material. In many cases, complex restorative materials—crown, post and core material—must be disassembled and removed to permit access to the root canals.
After removing the canal filling, the endodontist can clean the canals and carefully examine the inside of your tooth using magnification and illumination, searching for any additional canals or unusual anatomy that requires treatment.
After cleaning the canals, the endodontist will fill and seal the canals and place a temporary filling in the tooth. If the canals are unusually narrow or blocked, your endodontist may recommend endodontic surgery. This surgery involves making an incision to allow the other end of the root to be sealed.
After your endodontist completes retreatment, you will need to return to your dentist as soon as possible to have a new crown or other restoration placed on the tooth to protect and restore it to its full function.
Whenever possible, it is best to save your natural tooth. Retreated teeth can function well for years, even for a lifetime.
Advances in technology are constantly changing the way root canal treatment is performed, so your endodontist may use new techniques that were not available when you had your first procedure. Your endodontist may be able to resolve your problem with retreatment.
As with any dental or medical procedure, there are no guarantees. Your endodontist will discuss your options and the chances of success before beginning retreatment.
If nonsurgical retreatment is not an option, then endodontic surgery should be considered. This surgery involves making an incision to allow access to the tip of the root. Endodontic surgery may also be recommended in conjunction with retreatment or as an alternative. Your endodontist will discuss your options and recommend appropriate treatment.
The only other alternative is the extraction of the tooth. The extracted tooth must then be replaced with an implant, bridge or removable partial denture to restore chewing function and to prevent adjacent teeth from shifting. Because these options require extensive surgery or dental procedures on adjacent healthy teeth, they can be far more costly and time-consuming than retreatment and restoration of the natural tooth.
No matter how effective tooth replacements are—nothing is as good as your own natural tooth. You’ve already made an investment in saving your tooth. The payoff for choosing retreatment could be a healthy, functioning natural tooth for many years to come.
Surgery can help save your tooth in a variety of situations.
- Surgery may be used in diagnosis. If you have persistent symptoms but no problems appear on your x-ray, your tooth may have a tiny fracture or canal that could not be detected during nonsurgical treatment. In such a case, surgery allows your endodontist to examine the entire root of your tooth, find the problem, and provide treatment.
- Sometimes calcium deposits make a canal too narrow for the instruments used in nonsurgical root canal treatment to reach the end of the root. If your tooth has this “calcification,” your endodontist may perform endodontic surgery to clean and seal the remainder of the canal.
- Usually, a tooth that has undergone a root canal can last the rest of your life and never need further endodontic treatment. However, in a few cases, a tooth may not heal or become infected. A tooth may become painful or diseased months or even years after successful treatment. If this is true for you, surgery may help save your tooth.
- Surgery may also be performed to treat damaged root surfaces or surrounding bone.
- Although there are many surgical procedures that can be performed to save a tooth, the most common is called apicoectomy or root-end resection. When inflammation or infection persists in the bony area around the end of your tooth after a root canal procedure, your endodontist may have to perform an apicoectomy.
In this procedure, the endodontist opens the gum tissue near the tooth to see the underlying bone and to remove any inflamed or infected tissue. The very end of the root is also removed.
A small filling may be placed in the root to seal the end of the root canal, and a few stitches or sutures are placed in the gingiva to help the tissue heal properly.
Over a period of months, the bone heals around the end of the root.
Local anesthetics make the procedure comfortable. Of course, you may feel some discomfort or experience slight swelling while the incision heals. This is normal for any surgical procedure. Your endodontist will recommend appropriate pain medication to alleviate your discomfort.
Your endodontist will give you specific postoperative instructions to follow. If you have questions after your procedure, or if you have pain that does not respond to medication, call your endodontist.
Often you can, but you should ask your endodontist before your appointment so that you can make transportation arrangements if necessary.
Most patients return to work or other routine activities the next day. Your endodontist will be happy to discuss your expected recovery time with you.
Your dentist or endodontist is suggesting endodontic surgery because he or she believes it is the best option for saving your own natural tooth. Of course, there are no guarantees with any surgical procedure. Your endodontist will discuss your chances for success so that you can make an informed decision.
Often, the only alternative to surgery is the extraction of the tooth. The extracted tooth must then be replaced with an implant, bridge, or removable partial denture to restore chewing function and to prevent adjacent teeth from shifting. Because these alternatives require surgery or dental procedures on adjacent healthy teeth, endodontic surgery is usually the most biologic and cost-effective option for maintaining your oral health.
No matter how effective modern artificial tooth replacements are—and they can be very effective—nothing is as good as a natural tooth. You’ve already made an investment in saving your tooth. The payoff for choosing endodontic surgery could be a healthy, functioning natural tooth for the rest of your life.
Cracked teeth show a variety of symptoms, including erratic pain when chewing, possibly with the release of biting pressure, or pain when your tooth is exposed to temperature extremes. In many cases, the pain may come and go, and your dentist may have difficulty locating which tooth is causing the discomfort.
To understand why a cracked tooth hurts, it helps to know something about the anatomy of the tooth. Inside the tooth, under the white enamel and a hard layer called the dentin, is the inner soft tissue called the pulp. The pulp contains the tooth’s nerves and blood vessels.
When the outer hard tissues of the tooth are cracked, chewing can cause movement of the pieces, and the pulp can become irritated. Eventually, the pulp will become damaged to the point that it can no longer heal itself.
The tooth will not only hurt when chewing but may also become sensitive to temperature extremes. In time, a cracked tooth may begin to hurt all by itself. Extensive cracks can lead to infection of the pulp tissue, which can spread to the bone and gum surrounding the tooth.
Chipped teeth account for the majority of dental injuries. Most chipped teeth can be repaired either by reattaching the broken piece of tooth enamel or by bonding a tooth-colored filling or crown in place. See your dentist as soon as possible after the injury to treat your chipped tooth and keep it from worsening.
There are many different types of cracked teeth. The treatment and outcome for your tooth depend on the type, location, and extent of the crack.
Craze lines are tiny cracks that affect only the outer enamel. These cracks are extremely common in adult teeth. Craze lines are very shallow, cause no pain, and are of no concern beyond appearances.
When a piece of a tooth’s chewing surface breaks off, often around a filling, it’s called a fractured cusp. A fractured cusp rarely damages the pulp, and usually doesn’t cause much pain. Your dentist can place a new filling or crown over the damaged tooth to protect it.
If you’ve cracked a tooth and breathing through your mouth or drinking cold fluids is painful, bite on clean, moist gauze or cloth to help relieve symptoms until reaching your dentist’s office. Never use topical oral pain medications (such as Anbesol®) or ointments, or place aspirin on the affected areas to eliminate pain symptoms.
A cracked tooth means a crack extends from the chewing surface of your tooth vertically toward the root. The tooth is not yet separated into pieces, though the crack may gradually spread. Early diagnosis is important in order to save the tooth. If the crack has extended into the pulp, the tooth can be treated with a root canal procedure and a crown to protect the crack from spreading.
However, if the crack extends below the gum line, it is no longer treatable, and the tooth cannot be saved and will need to be extracted. That’s why early treatment is so important. A cracked tooth that is not treated will progressively worsen, eventually resulting in the loss of the tooth. Early diagnosis and treatment are essential in saving these teeth.
A split tooth is often the result of the long-term progression of a cracked tooth. The split tooth is identified by a crack with distinct segments that can be separated. A split tooth cannot be saved intact. The position and extent of the crack, however, will determine whether any portion of the tooth can be saved. In some cases, endodontic treatment may be performed to save a portion of the tooth.
Vertical Root Fracture
Vertical root fractures are cracks that begin in the root of the tooth and extend toward the chewing surface. They often show minimal signs and symptoms and may, therefore, go unnoticed for some time. Vertical root fractures are often discovered when the surrounding bone and gum become infected. Treatment may involve extraction of the tooth. However, endodontic surgery is sometimes appropriate if a tooth can be saved by removal of the fractured portion.
Unlike a broken bone, the fracture in a cracked tooth will not heal. In spite of treatment, some cracks may continue to progress and separate, resulting in loss of the tooth. Placement of a crown on a cracked tooth provides maximum protection but does not guarantee success in all cases.
The treatment you receive for your cracked tooth is important because it will relieve pain and reduce the likelihood that the crack will worsen. Once treated, most cracked teeth continue to function and provide years of comfortable chewing. Talk to your endodontist about your particular diagnosis and treatment recommendations.
While cracked teeth are not completely preventable, you can take some steps to make your teeth less susceptible to cracks.
- Don’t chew on hard objects such as ice, unpopped popcorn kernels or pens.
- Don’t clench or grind your teeth.
- If you clench or grind your teeth while you sleep, talk to your dentist about getting a retainer or other mouthguard to protect your teeth.
- Wear a mouthguard or protective mask when playing contact sports.
CHIPPED OR FRACTURED TEETH
If you’ve chipped or fractured your tooth’s crown, it’s likely it can be repaired either by reattaching the broken piece or by putting a tooth-colored filling in place. If a significant part of your tooth crown is broken off, an artificial crown or “cap” may be needed to restore it.
When the pulp is exposed or damaged after a crown fracture, root canal treatment may be needed. These injuries require special attention. If breathing through your mouth or drinking cold fluids is painful, bite on clean, moist gauze or cloth to help relieve symptoms until reaching your dentist’s office. Never use topical oral pain medication (such as Anbesol®) or ointments, or place aspirin on the affected areas to eliminate pain symptoms.
Injuries in the back teeth, such as fractured cusps, cracked teeth require root canal treatment and a full coverage crown to restore function your tooth if the crack extends into the root. More seriously injured split teeth may require extraction.
DISLODGED (LUXATED) TEETH
During an injury, a tooth may be pushed sideways, out of or into its socket. Your endodontist or general dentist will reposition and stabilize your tooth. Root canal treatment is usually needed for permanent teeth that have been dislodged and should be started several days following the injury. Medication may be put inside your tooth as part of the root canal treatment; once treatment is complete and has been deemed successful a permanent root canal filling or crown will be put in place at a later date.
Children ages 12 and under may not need root canal treatment since their teeth are still developing. New research indicates that stem cells present in the pulps of children can be stimulated to complete root growth and heal the pulp following injuries or infection. When a child’s tooth is injured, an endodontist or dentist will monitor the healing carefully and intervene immediately if any unfavorable changes appear. Multiple follow-up appointments are likely to be needed.
KNOCKED-OUT (AVULSED) TEETH
If one of your teeth is completely knocked out of your mouth, see an endodontist or dentist immediately! Time is of the essence and if you receive treatment quickly, preferably within 30 minutes, there is a chance to save your tooth.
Handle a knocked-out tooth very carefully and don’t touch the root surface. Following a few important steps will help increase the likelihood of saving your tooth. Your endodontist or dentist will evaluate the tooth, place it back in its socket and examine you for any other dental and facial injuries. A stabilizing splint will be placed for the next few weeks. Depending on the stage of root development, your dentist or endodontist may start root canal treatment a week or two later.
Depending on the length of time your tooth was out of your mouth and how it was stored before receiving treatment it may be necessary to discuss other treatment options with your dentist or endodontist.
A traumatic injury to your tooth may also result in a horizontal root fracture. The location of the fracture determines the long-term health of your tooth. The closer a fracture is to the root tip, the better the chances of success and long-term health; fractures closer to the gum line are more debilitating for your tooth. Sometimes, stabilization with a splint is required while the tooth heals.
Chipped primary (baby) teeth can be esthetically restored. Dislodged primary teeth can, in rare cases, be repositioned. However, primary teeth that have been knocked out typically should not be replanted because it may cause further and permanent damage to the underlying permanent tooth that is growing inside the bone.
Children’s permanent teeth that are not fully developed at the time of the injury need special attention and careful follow up, but not all of them will need root canal treatment. In an immature permanent tooth, blood supply to the tooth and stem cells in the region may enable your dentist or endodontist to stimulate continued root growth.
Endodontists will do all that is possible to save the natural tooth and have the knowledge and skill to treat incompletely formed roots in children so that, in some instances, the roots can continue to develop. Look to these specialists for information and their expertise when your child is the victim of dental trauma.
Factors that affect the long-term health of your tooth after an injury include: the nature of the injury, the length of time from injury to treatment, how your tooth was cared for after the injury and your body’s response. Getting treatment as soon as possible is very important with dislodged or knocked-out teeth in particular, in order to prevent root resorption.
Resorption occurs when your body, through its own defense mechanisms, begins to reject your own tooth in response to the traumatic injury. Following an injury, you should return to your dentist or endodontist to have the tooth examined and/or treated on a regular basis for up to five years to ensure that root resorption is not occurring and that surrounding tissues continue to heal. Unfortunately, some types of resorption are untreatable.
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