Introduction 

Root canal treatment is a dental procedure used to treat infection at the centre of a tooth (the root canal system). It's also known as 'endodontics'.

The infection is caused by bacteria that live in the mouth and invade the tooth. This can happen after:

  • tooth decay
  • leaky fillings 
  • damage to teeth as a result of trauma, such as a fall 

Tooth structure

A tooth is made up of two parts. The crown is the part of the tooth that's visible in the mouth. The root extends into the bone of the jaw, anchoring the tooth in position.

Teeth also consist of:

  • enamel  the hard outer coating
  • dentine  a softer material that supports the enamel and forms most of the tooth 
  • cementum  a hard material that coats the root's surface
  • dental pulp  the soft tissue at the centre of the tooth

The root canal system contains the dental pulp and extends from the crown of the tooth to the end of the root. A single tooth can have more than one root canal.

Infection

The pulp is made up of soft tissue that includes nerves and blood vessels. The pulp will begin to die if it's infected by bacteria. Bacteria can then multiply and spread.

The bacteria and the substances they release will eventually pass out of the end of the root canal through the small hole where the blood vessels and nerves enter.

This process will continue because there's nothing to stop more bacteria passing down the root canal, which causes the tissues around the end of the tooth to become red and swollen. This can make your tooth painful and, in extreme cases, your face may become swollen (known as a dental abscess).

Read more about when root canal treatment should be carried out.

The procedure

To treat the infection in the root canal, the bacteria need to be removed.

This can be done by either removing the tooth (extraction) or attempting to save it by removing the bacteria from the root canal system (root canal treatment).

After the bacteria have been removed, the root canal will be filled and the tooth sealed with a filling or crown. In most cases, the inflamed tissue at the end of the tooth will heal naturally.

Before having root canal treatment, you will usually be given a local anaesthetic. This means the procedure shouldn't be painful, and should be no more unpleasant than having a filling.

Root canal treatment is usually successful. In about 9 out of 10 cases, a tooth can survive for up to 10 years after root canal treatment.

Read more about how root canal treatment is performed.

Aftercare

It's important to look after your teeth when recovering from root canal treatment.

Avoid biting on hard foods until all of your treatment is complete.

In most cases, it's possible to prevent the need for further root canal treatment by:

Read more about dental health.

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Page last reviewed: 23/07/2014

Next review due: 23/07/2016