“Do I need a root canal or filling?” It’s easy to get confused about these two dental procedures, which are both used to treat dental decay (also known as a cavity). And while you might find a great deal of information about these procedures online, it should all be taken with a grain of salt. It’s impossible to determine whether you need a filling, a root canal procedure, or some other treatment until a dentist has had the chance to examine you.
The Underlying Problem: A Cavity
Cavities remain the most common health condition in both children and adults, though the condition is largely preventable. Quite simply, a cavity is a hole in the tooth that grows over time. This hole forms because of plaque, which is the sticky yellow or white substance that comes off when you floss your teeth. Plaque is made up of bacteria, which produce acids when they digest foods in your mouth. Those acids can eat away at the outermost layer of teeth, also known as enamel.
Over time, the acids can continue to wear through tooth enamel, causing the inside parts of the tooth to become exposed. If you’ve ever had a toothache, it may have been due to a cavity that reached all the way to the tooth root, where the nerves are. Tooth pain should never be ignored. The longer you wait to seek treatment for a painful tooth, the easier it is for the decay to progress (and become more painful!).
There are a number of treatments to address tooth decay, depending on how far it has advanced:
- Fluoride treatments
For early-stage cavities, a professional fluoride treatment helps to restore tooth enamel and can even reverse tooth decay in some cases. A professional treatment contains more fluoride than the amount found in toothpaste and mouth rinses.
Also called restorations, fillings are the main treatment option for decay that has progressed beyond its early stages. Fillings can be made of different materials, including composite resins, porcelain, or a dental amalgam (a combination of materials).
Crowns may be used as a protective covering for extensive decay or weakened teeth. This custom-fitted restoration replaces the tooth’s natural crown, strengthening the structure. Crowns may be made of resin, high-strength porcelain, or gold.
- Root canal procedures
When decay has reached the inner chamber of the tooth, also known as the pulp, you may need a root canal. This is a treatment to clean out and repair an infected tooth instead of removing it. The diseased pulp tissue is removed and replaced with a filling, after which a crown is placed to protect the tooth.
- Tooth extraction
Extraction is required when a tooth has become so severely decayed that it can’t be restored. When a tooth has been pulled, it’s best to get a bridge or dental implant to prevent the teeth from shifting into the empty space.
Fillings vs. Root Canal Procedures
Fillings and root canals are two of the most common procedures to treat tooth decay. A filling may be recommended for a smaller cavity that has not reached the tooth pulp. A root canal procedure is needed when there is an infection or breakage that has penetrated to the inner tooth.
What Steps Are Involved in Filling a Tooth?
First, the dentist numbs the area with a local anesthetic. Then the decay is removed using a laser, air abrasion instrument, or drill. Next, the dentist will probe the area to ensure that all decay has been taken out. Once all the decay has been removed, the filling material is applied in layers, with the dentist using a special light to “cure” or harden each layer. Finally, the material is shaped to the tooth and polished.
What Steps Are Involved in a Root Canal Procedure?
Endodontic treatment can usually be performed in one or two visits. The first step is to take a radiograph (x-ray) of the tooth and administer a local anesthetic. The endodontist will place a protective sheet called a “dental dam” over the area to keep it clean during the procedure. Then, an opening will be made in the crown of the tooth. The dentist will then remove the damaged or infected pulp, and clean the canals with a disinfecting solution. Using tiny instruments, the endodontist will then shape the canals.
If the treatment requires two visits, calcium hydroxide is placed in the canal to ward off bacteria. A temporary filling is placed over the seal until the next appointment. An antibiotic may be prescribed when appropriate. For treatments that require only one visit, the endodontist will fill the root canal and immediately place a crown over the tooth. A crown helps to prevent further reinfection by covering the tooth with a hard, protective structure.
Cavity Treatment at Penn Dental Family Practice
If you’re wondering whether you need a root canal or filling, the answer depends on the degree of cavity progression. Similar symptoms occur in both people who need a root canal and a filling simply because these procedures treat the same condition: cavities. Symptoms may include:
- Visible pits or dark spots in the tooth
- Spontaneous tooth pain
- Tooth sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures
- Pain when you bite down
- Toothache that becomes generalized into a headache
Only an appointment with a dental professional can determine the appropriate treatment for you. We encourage you to schedule an appointment at Penn Dental Family Practice, where you’ll benefit from the expertise of leading specialists in the field. Our compassionate, expert care makes us a preferred provider for patients seeking quality dentistry services in the Philadelphia area. To schedule your visit, please call 898-215-7337 or use our appointment form.