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What is a root canal?

Understanding the anatomy of your teeth

When you hear the term “root canal,” you may immediately think of a dental procedure that involves removing the damaged or infected pulp from inside a tooth. However, the term “root canal” actually refers to a specific part of the natural space within the tooth that contains the tooth’s pulp, nerves, and blood vessels. In this article, we’ll focus on the anatomical understanding of a root canal and why it’s important to your dental health.

The anatomy of a tooth

To understand what a root canal is, it’s helpful to first understand the basic anatomy of a tooth. A tooth has three main parts: the crown, the root, and the pulp and nervous system of the tooth inside the tooth.

  • The crown is the visible part of the tooth that’s above the gum line.
  • The root is the part of the tooth that’s below the gum line and anchors the tooth in the jawbone.
  • The pulp is the soft tissue inside the tooth that contains nerves, blood vessels, and connective tissue.

The root canal

The root canal is a narrow, curved channel that extends from the tip of the tooth’s root to the pulp chamber. Each tooth has at least one root canal, but some teeth, such as molars, can have multiple root canals. The root canal is connected to the outside of the tooth with super small canals and contains blood vessels, nerves, and connective tissue that help the tooth to stay alive and to sense changes in the environment.

Why are root canals important?

Although the volume of the dental pulp shrinks as the tooth and its holder mature, it can still become damaged or infected. This can happen if the tooth is cracked, chipped, or decayed, allowing bacteria to enter the pulp and cause an infection. If left untreated, an infected pulp can cause severe pain and sensitivity, and can even lead to the formation of an abscess. In some cases, the infection can spread to other parts of the body and cause serious health problems.

Root canal treatment

A root canal treatment is a dental procedure used to repair and save a tooth that is traumatised, infected or severely decayed. During the procedure, the dentist removes the damaged or infected pulp from the inside of the tooth, cleans the root canals, and fills them with a material to prevent further infection.

What happens during a root canal treatment?

  1. During a root canal treatment, the dentist numbs nerves innervating the affected tooth to prevent pain.
  2. They then create an opening in the top of the tooth and remove the damaged or infected pulp from the pulp chamber and root canals using special instruments.
  3. Once the pulp is removed, the dentist cleans the root canals to remove any remaining bacteria or debris. They may also use an antimicrobial solution to kill any remaining bacteria and reduce the risk of further infection.

After the root canals are cleaned, the dentist fills them with a rubber-like material called gutta-percha. This seals the canals and prevents bacteria from re-entering the tooth. Finally, the dentist places a filling or crown on the tooth to restore its strength and function.

Root canal statistics in the UK

  • Root canal treatments are the most common endodontic procedure in the UK, according to a report by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
  • A study published in the British Dental Journal found that after three years of follow-up, the success rate for root canal treatments in the UK was 93.1%.
  • The same study identified that the most common reason for root canal treatment failure in the UK was the development of a new infection, which occurred in 11.6% of cases.
  • The British Endodontic Society highlights that root canal treatments are generally more successful when performed by an experienced endodontist rather than a general dentist.


Now that you understand what a root canal is, you can appreciate the important role it plays in your dental health. By understanding the anatomy of your teeth and how they function, you can take better care of your teeth and prevent problems before they arise. If you have any concerns about the health of your teeth, be sure to talk to your dentist to learn more about your treatment options.


Created: 15/05/2023

Updated: 15/05/2023

Clinically reviewed by: Prof Dr Christian Mehl

Written by: Dr Raul Costa

Dr Raul Costa

About the author:

Dr Raul Costa is a restorative dentist with a unique set of skills for dental aesthetics and a drive for ultra-conservative techniques. He qualified from the Lisbon Dental School in 2005 and has been practicing in London since 2008. He works with world-renowned ceramists in order to deliver natural-looking, life-like, crowns and veneers. He is also particularly talented and experienced with composite bondings and implant-supported restorations.