Endodontic therapy

Root canal procedure: unhealthy or injured tooth, subsequent creation of an access cavity with a dental handpiece, cleaning & shaping the root canals with an endodontic file, and restoration with gutta-percha filling and a crown
Removing infected pulp during root canal.

Endodontic therapy or root canal therapy is a sequence of treatment for the infected pulp of a tooth which results in the elimination of infection and the protection of the decontaminated tooth from future microbial invasion.[1] Root canals, and their associated pulp chamber, are the physical hollows within a tooth that are naturally inhabited by nerve tissue, blood vessels and other cellular entities. Together, these items constitute the dental pulp.[2] Endodontic therapy involves the removal of these structures, the subsequent shaping, cleaning, and decontamination of the hollows with small files and irrigating solutions, and the obturation (filling) of the decontaminated canals. Filling of the cleaned and decontaminated canals is done with an inert filling such as gutta-percha and typically a eugenol-based cement.[3] Epoxy resin is employed to bind gutta-percha in some root canal procedures.[4] Endodontics includes both primary and secondary endodontic treatments as well as periradicular surgery which is generally used for teeth that still have potential for salvage.[5]


Nunn et al.[6] trace the history back to 1756, at which date Philip Pfaff[7] published his work on gold as a filler material.

Treatment procedure

The procedure is often complicated, depending on circumstances, and may involve multiple visits over a period of weeks.

Diagnostic and preparation

x-ray of a root canal operation
Tooth #13, the upper left second premolar, after excavation of DO decay. There was a carious exposure into the pulp chamber (red oval), and the photo was taken after endodontic access was initiated and the roof of the chamber was removed.
Tooth #5, the upper right first premolar, after extraction. The two single-headed arrows point to the CEJ, which is the line separating the crown (in this case, heavily decayed) and the roots. The double headed arrow (bottom right) shows the extent of the abscess that surrounds the apex of the palatal root.

In the situation that a tooth is considered so threatened (because of decay, cracking, etc.) that future infection is considered likely or inevitable, a pulpectomy (removal of the pulp tissue) is advisable to prevent such infection. Usually, some inflammation and/or infection is already present within or below the tooth. To cure the infection and save the tooth, the dentist drills into the pulp chamber and removes the infected pulp and then drills the nerve out of the root canal(s) with long needle-shaped hand instruments known as files (H files and K files).

Opening in the crown

The endodontist makes an opening through the enamel and dentin tissues of the tooth, usually using a dental drill fitted with a dental burr.

Removal of pulp tissue

Procedures for shaping

There have been a number of progressive iterations to the mechanical preparation of the root canal for endodontic therapy. The first, referred to as the standardized technique, was developed by Ingle in 1961, and had disadvantages such as the potential for loss of working length and inadvertent ledging, zipping or perforation.[8][9] Subsequent refinements have been numerous, and are usually described as techniques. These include the step-back, circumferential filing, incremental, anticurvature filing, step-down, double flare, crown-down-pressureless, balanced force, canal master, apical box, progressive enlargement, modified double flare, passive stepback, alternated rotary motions, and apical patency techniques.[10]

The step back technique, also known as telescopic or serial root canal preparation, is divided in two phases: in the first, the working length is established and then the apical part of the canal is delicately shaped since a size 25 K-file reaches the working length; in the second, the remaining canal is prepared with manual or rotating instrumentation.[11] This procedure, however, has some disadvantages, such as the potential for inadvertent apical transportation. Incorrect instrumentation length can occur, which can be addressed by the modified step back. Obstructing debris can be dealt with by the passive step back technique.[12] The crown down is a procedure in which the dentist prepares the canal beginning from the coronal part after exploring the patency of the whole canal with the master apical file.

There is a "hybrid" procedure combining "step back" and "crown down": after the canal's patency check, the coronal third is prepared with hand or Gates Glidden drills, then the working length is determined and finally the apical portion is shaped using step back techniques. The double flare is a procedure introduced by Fava where the canal is explored using a small file. Then canal is prepared in crown down manner using K-files then follows a "step back" preparation with 1 mm increments with increasing file sizes. With early coronal enlargement, also described as "three times technique", apical canals are prepared after a working length assessment using an apex locator; then progressively enlarged with Gates Glidden drills (only coronal and middle third). For the eponymic third time the dentist "arrives at the apex" and, if necessary, prepares the foramen with a size 25 K-file; the last phase is divided in two refining passages: the first with a 1-mm-staggered instrument, the second with 0.5-mm staggering. From the early nineties engine-driven instrumentation were gradually introduced including the ProFile system, the Greater Taper files, the ProTaper files, and other systems like Light Speed, Quantec, K-3 rotary, Real World Endo, and the Hero 642.

All of these procedures involve frequent irrigation and recapitulation with the master apical file, a small file hat reaches the apical foramen.[13] High frequency ultrasound based techniques have also been described. These can be useful in particular for cases with complex anatomy, or for retained foreign body retrieval from a failed prior endodontic procedure.[14]

Operative techniques for instruments

There are two slightly different anti-curvature techniques. In the balanced forces technique, the dentist inserts his file into the canal and rotates clockwise a quarter of a turn, engaging dentin, then rotates counter-clockwise half/three quarter of a revolution, applying pressure in apical direction, shearing off tissue previously meshed. From the balanced forces stem two other techniques: the reverse balanced force (where GT instruments are rotated first anti-clockwise and then clockwise) and the gentler "feed and pull" where the instrument is rotated only a quarter of a revolution and moved coronally after engagement, but not drawn out.


The root canal is flushed with an irrigant. The following substances may be used as root canal irrigants during the root canal procedure:

Starting with a smaller file size (sometimes termed a 'pathfinder'), progressively larger files are used to widen the canals. This process serves to remove debris and infected tissue and facilitates greater penetration than an irrigating solution (see 'irrigants' below). After this is done, the dentist fills each of the root canals and the chamber with an inert material and seals up the opening. This procedure is known as root canal therapy. With the removal of nerves and blood supply from the tooth, it is best that the tooth be fitted with a crown.

Filling the root canal

The standard filling material is gutta-percha, a natural polymer prepared from latex from the percha (Palaquium gutta) tree. The standard endodontic technique involves inserting a gutta-percha cone (a "point") into the cleaned-out root canal along with a sealing cement.[18] Another technique uses melted or heat-softened gutta-percha which is then injected or pressed into the root canal passage(s). However, since gutta-percha shrinks as it cools, thermal techniques can be unreliable and sometimes a combination of techniques is used. Gutta-percha is radiopaque, allowing verification afterwards that the root canal passages have been completely filled and are without voids.

An alternative filling material was invented in the early 1950s by Angelo Sargenti. Filling material has undergone several formulations over the years (N2, N2 Universal, RC-2B, RC-2B White), but all contain paraformaldehyde. The paraformaldehyde, when placed into the root canal, forms formaldehyde, which penetrates and sterilizes the passage. The formaldehyde is then theoretically transformed into harmless water and carbon dioxide. According to some research, the outcome of this method is better than a root canal performed with gutta-percha. There is, however, a lack of indisputable scientific studies according to the Swedish Council on Health Technology Assessment.

In rare cases, the paste, like any other material, can be forced past the root tip into the surrounding bone. If this happens, the formaldehyde will immediately be transformed into a harmless substance. Blood normally contains 2 mg formaldehyde per liter and the body regulates this in seconds. The rest of an overfill will be gradually absorbed and the end result is normally good. In 1991, the ADA Council on Dental Therapeutics resolved that the treatment was "not recommended," and it is not taught in American dental schools. Scientific evidence in endodontic therapy was, and still is lacking.[19] Despite this lack of support, the Sargenti technique has advocates who believe N2 to be less expensive and at least as safe as gutta-percha.[20]

Pain control can be difficult to achieve at times because of anesthetic inactivation by the acidity of the abscess around the tooth apex. Sometimes the abscess can be drained, antibiotics prescribed, and the procedure reattempted when inflammation has been mitigated. The tooth can also be unroofed to allow drainage and help relieve pressure.

A root treated tooth may be eased from the occlusion as a measure to prevent tooth fracture prior to the cementation of a crown or similar restoration. Sometimes the dentist performs preliminary treatment of the tooth by removing all of the infected pulp of the tooth and applying a dressing and temporary filling to the tooth. This is called a pulpectomy. The dentist may also remove just the coronal portion of the dental pulp, which contains 90% of the nerve tissue, and leave intact the pulp in the canals. This procedure, called a "pulpotomy", tends to essentially eliminate all the pain. A pulpotomy may be a relatively definitive treatment for infected primary teeth. The pulpectomy and pulpotomy procedures aim to eliminate pain until the follow-up visit for finishing the root canal. Further occurrences of pain could indicate the presence of continuing infection or retention of vital nerve tissue.

After removing as much of the internal pulp as possible, the root canal(s) can be temporarily filled with calcium hydroxide paste. This strong base is left in for a week or more to disinfect and reduce inflammation in surrounding tissue. The patient may still complain of pain if the dentist left pulp devitalizer over the canal.[21] Ibuprofen taken orally is commonly used before and/or after these procedures to reduce inflammation.

Temporary filling

A temporary filling material is applied between the visits. [22]

Final restoration

Molars and premolars that have had root canal therapy should be protected with a crown that covers the cusps of the tooth. This is because the access made into the root canal system removes a significant amount of tooth structure. Molars and premolars are the primary teeth used in function, and will almost certainly fracture in the future without cuspal coverage. Anterior teeth typically do not require full coverage restorations after a root canal, unless there is extensive tooth loss from decay or for esthetics or unusual occlusion. Placement of a crown or cusp-protecting cast gold covering is recommended also because these have the best ability to seal the root canaled tooth. If the tooth is not perfectly sealed, the root canal may leak, causing eventual failure of the root canal. Also, many people believe once a tooth has had a root canal treatment it cannot get decay. This is not true. A tooth with a root canal treatment still has the ability to decay, and without proper home care and an adequate fluoride source the tooth structure can become severely decayed (often without the patient's knowledge since the nerve has been removed, leaving the tooth without any pain perception). Thus, non-restorable carious destruction is the main reason for extraction of teeth after root canal therapy, with up to two-thirds of these extractions.[23] Therefore, it is very important to have regular X-rays taken of the root canal to ensure that the tooth is not having any problems that the patient would not be aware of.

Pulp tissue removed during endodontic therapy by a size 20 broach file.

Endodontic retreatment

Endodontic retreatment describes a dental root canal procedure that is carried out on a tooth that has previously had root canal treatment.[24] For this reason it is also called "repeat root canal treatment".

One reason for endodontic retreatment is failure of the initial endodontic procedure: Recurrence of symptoms, infection such as dental abscess may occur.

Endodontic treatment may fail for many reasons: one common reason for failure is inadequate chemomechanical debridement of the root canal. This may be due to poor endodontic access, missed anatomy or inadequate shaping of the canal, particularly in the apical third of the root canal.

Exposure of the obturation material to the oral environment may mean the gutta-percha is contaminated with oral bacteria. If complex and expensive restorative dentistry is contemplated then ideally the contaminated gutta percha would be replaced in a retreatment procedure to minimise the risk of failure.

The type of bacteria found within a failed root canal may differ from the normal infected tooth. Enterococcus faecalis and/or other facultative enteric bacteria or Pseudomonas sp. are found in this situation.1

Endodontic retreatment is technically demanding; typical 5 year success rates are around 60% compared to around 85% for initial root-canal treatment. It can be time consuming procedure also as meticulous care is required by the dentist. Complex retreatment cases may be referred to a specialist endodontist. Use of an operating microscope or other magnification may improve outcomes.

Instruments and equipment used in endodontic therapy

In the last ten to twenty years, there have been great innovations in the art and science of root canal therapy. Dentists now must be educated on the current concepts in order to optimally perform a root canal. Root canal therapy has become more automated and can be performed faster thanks, in part, to machine driven rotary technology and more advanced root canal filling methods. Many root canal procedures are done in one dental visit which may last for around 1–2 hours. Newer technologies are available (e.g. cone-beam CT scanning) that allow more efficient, scientific measurements to be taken of the dimensions of the root canal. Many dentists use dental loupes to perform root canal therapy, and the consensus is that root canals performed using loupes, or other forms of magnification (e.g. a surgical microscope), are more likely to succeed than those performed without them. Although general dentists are becoming versed in these advanced technologies, they are still more likely to be used by root canal specialist (known as endodontists).

Laser root canal procedures are a controversial innovation. Lasers may be fast but have not been shown to thoroughly disinfect the whole tooth,[25] and may cause damage.[26]


Instruments may separate (break) during root canal treatment, meaning a portion of the metal file used during the procedure remains inside the tooth. The file segment may be left behind if an acceptable level of cleaning and shaping has already been completed and attempting to remove the segment would risk damage to the tooth. While potentially disconcerting to the patient, having metal inside of a tooth is relatively common, such as with metal posts, amalgam fillings, gold crowns, and porcelain fused to metal crowns. The occurrence of file separation is proportional to the narrowness, curvature, length, calcification and number of roots on the tooth being treated. Complications resulting from incompletely cleaned canals, due to blockage from the separated file, can be addressed with surgical root canal treatment. The occurrence of instrument separation is well documented.[27]

A sodium hypochlorite incident is an immediate reaction of severe pain, followed by edema, haematoma and ecchymosis as a consequence of the solution escaping the confines of the tooth and entering the periapical space.[28] This may be caused iatrogenically by binding or excessive pressure on the irrigant syringe or it may occur if the tooth has an unusually large apical foramen.[29] It is usually self resolving and may take 2 to 5 weeks to fully resolve.[29]

Tooth discoloration is common following root canal treatment, however the exact causes for this are not completely understood.[30] Failure to completely clean out the necrotic soft tissue of the pulp system may cause staining, and certain root canal materials (e.g. gutta percha and root canal sealer cements) can also cause staining.[30] Another possible factor is the lack of pulp pressure in dentinal tubules once the pulp is removed leads to incorporation of dietary stains in dentin.[30]

Another common complication of root canal therapy is when the entire length of the root canal is not completely cleaned out and filled (obturated) with root canal filling material (usually gutta percha). The X-ray in the right margin below shows two adjacent teeth that had received bad root canal therapy. The root canal filling material (3, 4 & 10) does not extend to the end of the tooth roots (5, 6 & 11). The dark circles at the bottom of the tooth roots (7 & 8) indicated infection in the surrounding bone. Recommended treatment is either to redo the root canal therapy if possible or extract the tooth and place dental implant(s). [31]

An X-ray explanation of bad root canal therapy
An X-ray explanation of bad root canal therapy. See text above.

Success and prognosis

Root canal treated teeth may fail to heal, for example if the dentist does not find, clean and fill all of the root canals within a tooth. On a maxillary molar, there is a more than 50% chance that the tooth has four canals instead of just three. But the fourth canal, often called a "mesio-buccal 2", tends to be very difficult to see and often requires special instruments and magnification in order to see it (most commonly found in first maxillary molars; studies have shown an average of 76% up to 96% of such teeth with the presence of an MB2 canal). This infected canal may cause a continued infection or "flare up" of the tooth. Any tooth may have more canals than expected, and these canals may be missed when the root canal is performed. Sometimes canals may be unusually shaped, making them impossible to clean and fill completely; some infected material may remain in the canal. Sometimes the canal filling does not fully extend to the apex of the tooth, or it does not fill the canal as densely as it should. Sometimes a tooth root may be perforated while the root canal is being treated, making it difficult to fill the tooth. The perforation may be filled with a root repair material, such as one derived from natural cement called mineral trioxide aggregate (MTA). A specialist can often re-treat failing root canals, and these teeth will then heal, often years after the initial root canal procedure.

However, the survival or functionality of the endodontically-treated tooth is often the most important aspect of endodontic treatment outcomes, rather than apical healing alone.[32] Recent studies indicate that substances commonly used to clean the root canal space incompletely sterilize the canal.[33] A properly restored tooth following root canal therapy yields long-term success rates near 97%. In a large scale Delta Dental Study of over 1.6 million patients who had root canal therapy, 97% had retained their teeth 8 years following the procedure, with most untoward events, such as re-treatment, apical surgery or extraction, occurring during the first 3 years after the initial endodontic treatment.[34] Endodontically treated teeth are prone to extraction mainly due to non-restorable carious destruction and to a lesser extent to endodontic-related reasons such as endodontic failure, vertical root fracture, or perforation (procedural error).[23]

Systemic issues

Nondisruption of the periodontal fiber is a benefit of endodontic over implant therapy (labeled I-K)

An infected tooth may endanger other parts of the body. People with special vulnerabilities, such as a recent prosthetic joint replacement, an unrepaired congenital heart defect, or immunocompromisation, may need to take antibiotics to protect from infection spreading during dental procedures. The American Dental Association (ADA) asserts that any risks can be adequately controlled. A properly performed root canal treatment effectively removes the infected part of the pulp from the tooth.

In the early 1900s, several researchers theorized that bacteria from teeth which had necrotic pulps or which had received endodontic treatment could cause chronic or local infection in areas distant from the tooth through the transfer of bacteria through the bloodstream. This was called the "focal infection theory", and it led some dentists to advocate dental extraction. In the 1930s, this theory was discredited, but the theory was recently revived by a book entitled Root Canal Cover-Up Exposed which used the early discredited research, and further complicated by epidemiological studies which found correlations between periodontal disease and heart disease, strokes, and preterm births. The book's author, George Meinig has been a strong advocate against endodontic therapy for years; he has since lost his dental license for gross negligence and Root Canal Cover-Up Exposed has come under great criticism. Bacteremia (bacteria in the bloodstream) can be caused by many everyday activities, e.g. brushing teeth, but may also occur after any dental procedure which involves bleeding. It is particularly likely after dental extractions due to the movement of the tooth and force needed to dislodge it, but endodontically treated teeth alone do not cause bacteremia or systemic disease.[35]


The alternatives to root canal therapy include no treatment, or tooth extraction. Following tooth extraction, options for prosthetic replacement may include dental implants, a fixed partial denture (commonly referred to as a 'bridge'), or a removable denture.[36] There are risks to conducting no treatment such as pain, infection and the possibility of worsening dental infection such that the tooth will be no longer restorable (root canal treatment will not be successful, often due to excessive loss of tooth structure). If extensive loss of tooth structure occurs, extraction may be the only treatment option.

Implant therapy versus endodontic therapy

Research comparing endodontic therapy with implant therapy is considerable, both as an initial treatment and in retreatment for failed initial endodontic approaches.[37] Endodontic therapy allows avoidance of disruption of the periodontal fiber, which helps with proprioception for occlusal feedback, a reflex important in preventing patients from chewing properly and damaging the temporomandibular joint. In a comparison of initial nonsurgical endodontic treatment and single-tooth implants, both were found to have similar success rates.[38] While the procedures are similar in terms of pain and discomfort, a notable difference is that patients who have implants have reported "the worst pain of their life" during the extraction, with the implantation itself being relatively painless. The worst pain of endodontic therapy was reported with the initial anesthetic injection. Some patients receiving implants also describe a dull nagging pain after the procedure, while those with endodontic therapy describe "sensation" or "sensitivity" in the area.[39] Other studies have found that endodontic therapy patients report the maximum pain the day following treatment, while extraction and implantation patients reported maximum pain the end of the week after the operation.[40]

Implants also take longer, with a typically 3- to 6-month gap between the tooth implantation and receiving the crown, depending on the severity of infection. With regard to gender, women tend to report higher psychological disability after endodontic therapy, and a higher rate of physical disability after tooth implantation, while men do not show a statistically significant difference in response.[39] Mastication is significantly stronger in endodontically treated teeth as compared to implants.[41] Initial success rates after single tooth implants and endodontic microsurgery are similar the first 2 to 4 years following surgery, though after this the success rate of endodontic microsurgery is decreased as compared to implantation.[40]

To an extent, the criteria for success due to the inherent differences in the procedure have historically limited comparisons, with success of endodontic therapy defined as the absence of periapical lucency on radiographs, or the absence of visible cavity at the root of the tooth on imaging. Implant success, on the other hand, is defined by osseointegration, or fusion of the implant to the adjacent maxilla or mandible.[40] Endodontically treated teeth have significantly less requirement for follow up treatment after final restoration, while implants need more maintenance.[42] Socioeconomically, caucasians and affluent patients tend to choose implant therapy, while African American and less affluent patients prefer endodontic therapy.[43]

See also


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