Root Canal

I went for my usual 6 month tooth cleaning yesterday. I have this impression that if I have any tooth sensitivity before my visit, then there will be no cavities, while if my teeth feel fine and dandy, then I will end up needing fillings. This time I was feeling pretty much fine, although I’ve had a little sporadic gum swelling under a filled tooth that was temperature sensitive several months ago.

When the dentist looked at the swollen gum area, I could tell that he made the “uh…this is not good” face under his mask. So I was not totally surprised when he looked at the x-ray and recommended that I get a root canal (which is officially called “endodontic therapy”)  from the endodontic specialists down the road. My dentist suggested that I should not delay in getting this “therapy” for my tooth because the gum swelling was probably a potential abscess.  I think abscess and root canal were the terms I least wanted to hear a dentist say to me.

As luck would have it, the Dover Endodontic Associates had a cancellation this morning. So I was able to go right away for my endodontic therapy. I learned quite a few things through this experience. First, I got a thorough lesson on what a root canal is. I love this kind of thing. Whenever I have a medical procedure I must sound like a kid on a science museum field trip. I always ask lots of questions about the procedure–not because I don’t trust the medicos, but because I’m think the ways our bodies can be repaired are fascinating.

Basically the nerve tissue inside my tooth had died. Bacteria apparently love dead nerve cells inside a tooth.  I imagine them like brain-eating little zombies. These zombies can move out from the tooth and make other nearby tissue necrotic as well. The root canal procedure is to drill out the dead tissue all the way down through the canals in the tooth’s roots. Then the drilled out holes are sanitized and filled with a natural rubber called “gutta-percha.”  After all this, I have to get a crown—a tooth shaped hat for my rubber filled tooth. I think gutta-percha is a great name. I’ve been saying it conga line style all day: “gutta gutta perCHA!”

the gutta-percha tree

I’d heard of “dental dams” in health class, but I didn’t know dentists actually used them! After numbing me up, they began by stretching this little trampoline (the dam) across my mouth and sticking it down around the offending tooth. The dam prodrudes from the tooth like one of those cones they make dogs wear. This isolates the tooth so that they can keep it clean and dry more easily. The Dr.  poked a little hole on the other side of the dam so that I could breathe through my mouth. Very thoughtful.

Dam in place, the Dr. drilled out the tooth. I never knew there were so many shapes and sizes of dental drill. He must have switched drills bits every 10 seconds once he was down into the roots. After the drilling, he actually hand filed the canals with teeny tiny pin-sized files held between his fingertips. I was impressed. This guy had game.

I have a temporary filling in the tooth now and have to return for more drilling and shaping in a few weeks. Sadly they weren’t able to do all the necessary drilling and shaping in the time afforded by the cancellation into which I slipped. I’ll have to wait for my permanent gutta-percha (which incidentally comes from the Malay word for the tree that produces this rubber).

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3 Comments on “Root Canal”

  1. Scott Says:

    ugh. Sorry to hear that. How absurd is the eating part of your life before they finish this up?

    do they have any idea what killed the nerves to begin with?

    • bpatricksullivan Says:

      I can only chew on the left side, probably for the next six weeks until I get the crown. The nerve may have died after being irritated by a fairly deep filling, which I got two years ago on Halloween. Do you remember my tooth costume?
      I'm a tooth.

      • Scott Says:

        I think this is the halloween…

        wait for it

        wait for it

        …when I was at Caltech

        that’ never not going to be funny.


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