In the past, if you had a tooth with a diseased nerve, you'd probably lose that tooth. Today, with a special dental procedure called root canal treatment, you may save that tooth.
Inside each tooth is both the pulp and the nerve. The nerve is the vestige of the tissue that originally formed the tooth. Once the tooth has been in the mouth for a time, the functioning of the nerve is no longer necessary.
When a tooth is cracked or has a deep cavity, bacteria can enter the pulp. Germs can cause an infection inside the tooth. Left without treatment, pus builds up at the root tip in the jawbone, forming a "pus-pocket" called an abscess. An abscess can cause the pulp tissue to die. When the infected pulp is not removed, pain and swelling can result. Certain by-products of the infection can injure your jawbones and your overall health. Without treatment, your tooth may have to be removed.
Treatment often involves from one to three visits. During treatment, your general dentist or endodontist (a dentist who specializes in problems of the pulp) removes the diseased pulp. Next the pulp chamber and root canal(s) of the tooth are cleaned and sealed. Often posterior teeth that have endodontic treatment should have a cast crown placed in order to strengthen the remaining structure. Then, as long as you continue to care for your teeth and gums with regular brushing, flossing, and checkups so that the root(s) of the restored tooth are nourished by the surrounding tissues, your restored tooth can last a lifetime.
Most of the time a root canal is a relatively simple procedure with little or no discomfort, involving one to three visits. Best of all, it can save your tooth and your smile!