What is a root canal?

Learn about the root canal procedure and reasons why patients have this done.

Root Canal

You have probably heard people talk about needing a dental procedure called a root canal, but you might not know what they’re actually referring to. This post is going to explain the basics of the procedure and the reasons why dentists do it.

When people talk about needing to have a root canal, they often do so with a sense of dread. Unfortunately the root canal procedure has received a bad reputation as being a very unpleasant dental procedure. The truth is that for most patients a root canal feels pretty much the same as having a filling done, though it takes a little longer.

Composition of a Tooth

A tooth has several layers. The outer two layers (enamel and dentin) are hard and form a protective shell around the innermost layer, the pulp. The pulp contains nerves and blood vessels. The nerves and blood vessels in the pulp run through the roots of the tooth and connect to larger nerves and blood vessels in the jawbones. The root canal refers to the space where the pulp lives inside the roots of the tooth - a narrow opening called a canal.

What is a Root Canal

A root canal procedure is required when something damages the nerves and blood vessels in the pulp of the tooth, causing them to die. This can happen for several reasons, such as an injury, but the most common reason is tooth decay. If a cavity becomes very large, eventually it will reach the pulp inside the tooth. When this happens, the pulp is no longer protected from bacteria in the mouth, and it becomes infected and eventually dies. Sometimes this is painful (a toothache), but often it is not. If left untreated, however, the infected tooth will eventually have to be extracted.

During a root canal, the dentist cleans out canals that contain the tooth pulp. Cleaning the canals removes bacteria and prevents the infection from getting any worse. Once the canals are clean, the dentist fills them with an inert material (the most commonly used one is called gutta percha). After that, the dentist can place a permanent filling or crown on top of the tooth.

The anesthetic (numbing medicine) that dentists use blocks pain signals from the nerves inside the pulp, so the patient does not feel pain while the roots are being cleaned out. From the patient’s perspective, the procedure will seem very similar to having a filling done.


Of course, it’s ideal to avoid dental problems in the first place with good preventive care, but for teeth with severe decay, sometimes the only solution is a root canal. It’s a valuable treatment option for dentists to be able to provide patients, and nowadays not something to be dreaded.