Inside of a tooth, under the white enamel and a layer called the dentin, is soft tissue called the pulp. The pulp contains blood vessels, nerves, and connective tissue and creates the surrounding hard tissue of the tooth during development.
The pulp extends from the crown of the tooth to the tip of the roots where it connects to the tissues surrounding the root. The pulp is very important during a tooth’s growth and development. However, once a tooth is fully mature, it can survive without the pulp because the tooth continues to be nourished by the tissue surrounding it.
Root canal therapy is necessary when the pulp becomes inflamed or infected. The inflammation or infection can have a variety of causes: deep decay due to bacteria, multiple dental procedures on the tooth, or a crack or chip in the tooth. In addition, trauma to a tooth may cause pulp damage even if the tooth has no visible chips or cracks. If pulp inflammation or infection is left untreated, it can cause pain, and/or lead to an abscess. Signs of pulp damage may include pain, prolonged sensitivity to heat or cold, discoloration of the tooth, and swelling and tenderness in the nearby gums. Sometimes there are no symptoms at all.
A traditional root canal involves removing the inflamed or infected pulp, carefully cleaning and shaping the canals inside of the tooth, then filling and sealing the space inside the canal. In most cases, a crown holds the tooth together and reduces the likelihood of the tooth fracturing in the future. (This is a complete separate procedure)