West 85th Dental
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10 Signs You Need a Root Canal Hero

10 Signs You Need a Root Canal

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man in flannel shirt and white background holding jaw in pain

If someone you know has gone through a root canal, they probably weren’t exactly glowing with enthusiasm while talking about it. Root canals aren’t pleasant, but they’re much better than suffering from the circumstances requiring one.

Your dentist will watch for the signs, whether over the course of your routine dental exam and cleaning or in case of a dental emergency. There are a few different causes and several warning signs that you might need a root canal sooner rather than later.

What Parts of the Tooth are Involved in a Root Canal?

The outer layers of your tooth are often where it all begins. Your enamel is a tough material rich in minerals to protect and insulate your teeth from heat, corrosion, and pressure. Bacteria in your mouth form a living film (plaque) on your teeth, feeding on sugars and carbohydrates.

They produce acidic waste, which corrodes your teeth, so removing plaque is key to preventing tooth decay. But tooth decay out of control eats through the enamel into the dentin.

Dentin is a softer material with open channels (called tubules) leading to the tooth’s pulp chamber. These tubules carry nutrients outwards and allow heat and pressure to stimulate the pulp chamber’s nerve endings.

When the dentin’s decay reaches through the dentin and into the pulp chamber at the center of the tooth, the fleshy mass can become infected. There are crucial veins coming up from the jaw through the roots that depend on a healthy pulp chamber.

What Does the Pulp Chamber Do for a Tooth?

When this area is compromised, a root canal might be your best bet. The pulp chamber consists of nerve endings and blood vessels, which can carry bacteria from an infection into the blood vessels at the very roots of your tooth. With physical trauma, these nerves and blood vessels can deaden when blood fails to flow smoothly around.

The pulp chamber works so your brain can sense when you’re chewing something too hard or too hot. But infection or physical trauma here can lead to complications fast. We’ve put together a list of 9 signs that your pulp chamber is in trouble, indicating a growing need for a root canal.

Severe Pain in Your Tooth

One sure sign that we often see from our patients when they contact us is complaints about a sharp pain when the tooth is under any pressure.

This pain is a warning sign. Your tooth’s pulp chamber houses nerve endings and blood vessels, which might be under pressure from tooth decay. If your tooth’s been broken or cracked, decomposition of the tooth can have a similar effect.

Pimples on Your Gums

Pimples on your gums indicate leakage of infected fluids into the gums’ tissues from near the root. If you see these, it might be an advanced form of the infection, an abscess. A root canal might be your only option to prevent the infection from spreading.

Swelling in the Gums

Swollen gums might indicate an early stage of infection at a tooth’s root. Swelling can accompany inflammation, but either way, it’s a sign the blood flow between your jaw’s vessels and the pulp chambers of your teeth is off. In case the junctions of these veins are blocked by infection, the swelling will gradually become more noticeable by feeling in your mouth and along the point where your gums meet your jaw.

Discoloration in the Gums

Infection at the roots of your teeth can show up as gum discolouration. Your normal shade of gums is probably familiar to you, but if there’s a patch that’s darker than the rest, infection near a tooth’s root may be to blame. Discolouration can occur when there’s restricted blood flow or infiltrated plaque at the pulp layer of affected teeth.

Discolouration of the Tooth

A dead tooth becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. Infection from a dead pulp chamber’s decomposition is very likely, and the only surefire way to take care of it is a root canal. A tooth appearing grey or black is likely to be a dead one.

Physical trauma to your mouth can sometimes rupture the blood vessels in your tooth’s pulp chamber. If you can see a tooth darkening after it took a hit, you may want to contact your dentist and describe it as a dental emergency.

Cracked & Broken Tooth

close up of child's mouth wth a tooth injury in need of emergency dental care.

A darkening tooth isn’t the only dental emergency we anticipate. Sometimes we receive calls about broken teeth. A dentist who acts quickly with a patient’s chipped tooth or even a knocked-out tooth can easily set things right. In these types of physical trauma, the core of the tooth remains unaffected. We can apply a bond onto a chipped part or reattach a lost tooth.

But a tooth that’s been cracked open and had the pulp chamber exposed to saliva is an infection waiting to happen. A root canal saves time and a lot of eventual pain by replacing the broken pulp chamber with a filling and, depending on the extent of the damage, maybe a dental crown.

Sometimes a microscopic crack limited to a tooth’s root can lead to similar pain and discomfort, but it’ll be harder to detect, and more often than not, patients don’t perceive it as a dental emergency. A root canal may be required.

Trauma to the Jaw

In cases of trauma to the jaw where an open wound is exposed to open air, bacteria can set in and work their way up to the teeth if an infection goes untreated for too long. Blood vessels run along the jaw up to each tooth through the naturally formed root canal and into the pulp chamber.

Infections at the root canal (and the veins in your jaw) can have a similar effect as decay working down through the dentin and into the veins at your tooth’s root. Trauma to the jaw is a severe bodily injury, however. You should seek emergency medical care at a hospital and follow up with a dentist after your jaw has healed. That way, your teeth can be the focus rather than your health.

Extreme Tooth Sensitivity

Pain in your tooth and tooth sensitivity can be a blurry line. But if your tooth is susceptible to hot and cold foods all of a sudden, you might need a root canal. When your tooth’s pulp chamber suffers from an infection, your pulp chamber’s nerves can overreact to heat, with lingering effect.

Swelling on Your Head & Neck

A tooth abscess is an advanced stage of infection, where bacteria are dense enough to start working their way through the bloodstream. Swelling on the neck near a tooth with sharp pain might indicate that an abscess has infected your lymph nodes. It’s best to opt for a root canal well before this stage.

Speaking with Your Dentist About a Root Canal

Identifying these warning signs are best left to a professional, and your dentist will always carefully weigh the options before committing to such a serious procedure. But root canals work by removing tissue that can’t help you anymore, so your daily life will improve if you get it taken care of. Book an appointment today if you’re experiencing these symptoms, and we’ll be happy to advise.

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  • Written by Dr. Raman Minhas

    Dr. Minhas was born and raised in Calgary, and after completing his dental training at the University of Alberta in 2008, returned home to practice. He opened West 85th Dental with Dr. Kaloti in 2013 and has now been practicing dentistry for over ten years.

    Dr. Minhas enjoys all aspects of general dentistry, from pediatric dentistry to surgical dentistry. When he is not working Dr. Minhas enjoys spending time with his wife Laurie and four children.

    More Articles by Dr. Raman Minhas

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