So You Have A Dead Tooth: What Does It Mean and Can It Be Saved?
Did you know that your teeth are just as alive as the many organs inside your body? It's true. It's easy to think of them as static and unchanging, but each of our teeth has a live nerve at its root. This nerve is also known as the “pulp” of the tooth. These nerves control the nourishment of our teeth and help to sense hot and cold.
Just as the exterior of your tooth can decay, though, so too can the interior. It's even possible for a tooth to "die."
In dental terms, you may also hear this complication called "non-vital" to distinguish it from its healthy neighbours. If you know or suspect that you have a dead tooth, it's important to understand what that means. There are corrective steps you can take to save the tooth if you act early.
What exactly is a dead tooth?
A dead tooth is one in which the pulp in the root has died. This is a process that can occur over some time. At times, it can even be symptom-free, though that is less common. More frequently, you'll experience the death of this sensitive tissue as a persistent toothache. This pain may worsen during chewing or eating.
Once the pulp dies, it cannot be repaired or regenerated. The tissue left behind in the canal can then begin to decay as well, causing complications.
During this process, the tooth suffers from a noticeable discolouration from white to yellow or black. Pulp death and its ensuing issues are often the result of one of two main causes.
What causes a tooth to die?
First, traumatic damage to a tooth can have a large impact on the nerve. A severely chipped tooth, for example, can lead to an infection of the nerve. A hard blow to the tooth can also restrict its blood vessels, cutting off vital nutrients and eventually causing the tooth to die.
Some potential traumatic causes include:
- Bruxism (grinding of the teeth, especially during sleep)
- Sports injuries, especially football-related
- Accidental falls
Long-term tooth decay is also a common reason for a tooth to die. Poor dental hygiene over time can lead to bacterial decay reaching the root. The bacteria can attack the pulp, damaging it and eventually causing the tissue to die. In either case, the physical symptoms can be much the same.
What are the consequences of dead teeth?
After the pulp dies, infection of the dead tissue is the next big risk. This decay is the source of the many painful problems caused by a dead set of teeth.
The first noticeable sign if left untreated, the infection can even lead to numerous other problems, such as a pus-filled abscess under the tooth.
This very painful and severe condition can lead to additional problems, such as:
- Eventual loss of the tooth
- Damage to the bone surrounding the tooth
- Infection or damage to nearby teeth
If you are experiencing the symptoms of a dying nerve or an abscess, immediate treatment is crucial.
How is a dead tooth treated?
It's clear that a dead or dying tooth is a severe issue, especially if left untreated. However, there is good news: many dead teeth can actually be saved.
When your dentist detects the problem early on, they may recommend a root canal. This procedure leaves the original tooth in place but gets rid of the damaged tissue.
There are a few advantages to this procedure:
- The procedure has a very high rate of success
- You can retain the tooth
- Discolouration of a non-vital tooth is correctable
- Replaces pulp with dental filling, preventing reinfection
In more extreme or advanced cases, a root canal may not offer adequate treatment. In this case, extraction of the problematic tooth is the usual result. While the missing tooth can be replaced with dental implants or bridgework, this option is often more expensive and time-consuming. Timely detection is certainly preferable.
Speak to a dentist about your options
When you experience any dental pain, seeking treatment is always better than delaying. Waiting too long can create a more serious problem that early treatment can mitigate. Even if the pain subsides, a dead tooth still poses a long-term risk for infection.
If you've noticed worsening discoloration of a tooth or a significant pain, speak to an endodontist or your general dentist soon. A timely root canal will allow you to preserve and protect your natural teeth. For more dental health advice start at our homepage