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Endodontics or Root Canals 101

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Endodontics or Root Canals 101

Endodontics or Root Canals 101

September 06, 2005
By: Jean Johnson for Dental1

According to the American Association of Endodontists (AAE) “more than 16 million teeth receive endodontic treatment each year.” While we here at Dental1 won’t guess what this means in terms of actual breathing human beings, 16 million definitely sounds lots of pearly whites. More, a quick perusal of the AAE’s colorful pamphlets full of friendly pointers and illustrations only turns up the dreaded phrase “root canal” once. Indeed, in today’s nomenclature, the professionals talk in terms of endodontists and endodontic treatment and endodontic surgery.
Learn More
Common myths about root canals:

Myth: Root canal treatment is painful. Fact: According the American Association of Endodontists, root canals do not cause pain, they relieve it.

Myth: Root canal treatment causes illness. Fact: Recent studies support that people with teeth that receive proper endodontic treatment do not have a higher prevalence of illness.

Myth: A good alternative to root canal is pulling the infected tooth. Fact: Saving your natural teeth if possible, is the best option.

For more information on endodontic treatment, visit
the American Association of Endodontists

That doesn’t fool Cindy Parker. The horsewoman who lives in Missoula, Montana, says her mom “called ‘em root canals, and that’s what I’ve taught my kids. They can take their fancy terms all the way to the bank – and I’m sure they do.”

Whatever it’s called, Parker had to have one – the dental procedure that reams infected pulp out of the canals in the roots of a teeth. “It was my fault,” Parker said, “I took better care of my horse’s teeth than I did my own, and even though I knew something was going on, I just put it off and didn’t get into town until I couldn’t stand it. Especially when I downed my morning coffee. That got to be such a zinger I took to swallowing on one side of my mouth. Yeah, it wasn’t until my husband put his foot down and said ‘darn it Cindy, just go and get it over with,’ that I dragged myself in.”

Patients like Parker need endodontic treatment or root canals when the tooth pulp gets infected. Deep tooth decay, repeated dental procedures on a particular tooth, or a crack or chip in a tooth are common reasons for the pulp within the roots of teeth turning bad. Pain, prolonged sensitivity to hot or cold, discoloration of the tooth, and tender, swollen gum tissue can alert patients and then dentists of problems, although sometimes there are no symptoms at all.

Symptoms aside, it’s often fear of the procedure itself that keeps people from darkening the office door of their dentist or endodontist. Parker says she guesses she was nervous, but that now she knows she shouldn’t have been. “I had way more pain before than I did in the dentist chair or after. In fact, except for the rubber dam they slapped on my face, it was just like having a cavity filled.”

Portland, Oregon endodontist Chris Lampert, D.D.S., M.S. says Parker’s experience is fairly typical. “With modern techniques and anesthetics, most patients report they are comfortable during the procedure,” said Lampert. “Afterward during the first few days, over-the-counter or prescription medications generally manage what discomfort patients experience.”

But what about this rubber dam? This clamp that’s affixed to the tooth in question and has armatures that stick out in large square over which a piece of thin rubber is stretched tight.

In his blue scrubs, Lampert summons his professional demeanor and takes off the strange looking black glasses with the special camera-like optics he uses when he performs treatment. “Many patients do find the rubber dam claustrophobic, but in Oregon at least, the law requires its use.” He holds up one of the tiny long needle-like reamers he uses to clean the diseased pulp from the tooth root. “Before we used rubber dams, a dentist dropped one of these into a patient’s mouth, and the person inhaled it right into their lung. Removal required emergency surgery. Also, and even more critical, we need to keep saliva from getting in the canal while we’re working, and the only way to do that effectively is to isolate the tooth from the rest of the mouth with the rubber shield.”

Parker, though, isn’t convinced. “All I know is the dang thing covers your whole mouth and even goes up onto your cheeks – and it gets all clammy under there. It’s like having surgery with a local and being wide awake while they’ve got you all trussed up and draped and everything,” she said. “Me, I’d rather take my chances.”

Grousing from the hills of Montana aside, Parker is grateful that her tooth is better. “Yeah, modern dentistry is pretty OK. It’s awfully nice to not have to lose the tooth and all. And I suppose in their line of work, dentists have to err on the side of caution.”

Parker makes a good point. Endodontics is all about saving teeth. The best approach, of course, is to brush and floss and get regular checkups so we won’t wind up with teeth so compromised they need specialized treatment. But if we don’t, we can at least know that most of the folks doing the work these days have earned master’s degrees in the field, and can bail us out relatively pain free when signals coming from our teeth tell us we better hop on our horses and get in to see the pros.

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