We’ve all been there. You are minding your own business and then one day you notice a pain in one of your teeth. Maybe it happens when you are eating something cold or sweet, but you definitely notice some discomfort. While this is most likely the signs of something minor, the best thing you can do is make an appointment with your dentist as soon as possible so you can get a full exam done and repair any damage there might be. Two very common procedures that are needed after these types of incidents are fillings and root canals. While these are super common, they address different issues that might have similar symptoms. Here are a few key differences between situations when you need a filling versus when a root canal is necessary.

The Parts of the Tooth

While you might just be acquainted with the pearly white part of your teeth that you see from the outside, your teeth have several layers. The outside of a tooth is the enamel. Enamel is the most visible part of the tooth, and its main job is to protect your teeth from decay. This is why we put so much focus on taking care of the enamel of your teeth with annual teeth cleanings, fluoride toothpaste, and more!

Beneath the enamel is the dentin. While dentin is still a hard substance, it is softer than enamel and it plays an important role of supporting the structure of the tooth. It is also different from enamel in that dentin is sensitive, mostly because it is very close to the next part of the tooth, the pulp. The pulp chamber is the soft area beneath the dentin that contains the nerves and connective tissue in your teeth, running down all the way through the root of your teeth.

When Do I Need a Filling?

The need for a filling occurs when your teeth suffer from damage or tooth decay that has worn away your enamel. Because dentin is softer and more sensitive than enamel, you will start to feel discomfort when the dentin is exposed. To treat this scenario, a dentist will clean the affected area of the tooth and use a composite resin, or filling material, to seal up the hole or crack in your tooth. This ensures that the damage does not get worse and works as a protective layer over the dentin.

Common symptoms for a cracked or damaged tooth that is in need of a filling include sharp pains especially when biting down, sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures, sensitivity to sour or sweet foods, throbbing, and more. 

When Do I Need a Root Canal?

The need for a root canal occurs when the damage to your tooth reaches beyond the enamel and dentin and into the pulp chamber, causing an infection to the root tissue. In order to save your natural tooth, the infected pulp area (the soft tissue) is removed entirely to stop the spread of infection any further.  Even though the affected nerves are removed, your tooth is still able to function properly.

Symptoms for infection to your pulp chambers are similar to when you need a filling, but more severe. In addition, you might experience some swelling and tenderness around the tooth that is affected, discoloration, as well as severe pain. Infected tissue in your teeth can spread quickly, so if you are experiencing these symptoms, or any discomfort with your teeth or gums, you should see a dentist immediately for a professional assessment.

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