If you've been suffering from serious tooth pain or unexplained sensitivity lately, you may be experiencing the unpleasant sensations that can come from an infection of your tooth's root. Cavities, gum disease, and trauma to your face or jaw can all result in damage to your tooth enamel, allowing potentially harmful bacteria to infiltrate the delicate inner parts of your tooth. Left untreated, an infected tooth root can ultimately lead to the loss of your tooth and the erosion of your supporting bone structure.

But is a root canal treatment always the best way to combat root damage or infection? Read on to learn more about the situations in which this therapy is used and a few of your possible alternatives.

When is a root canal needed?

A root canal allows a dentist to drill into the tooth, remove the infected root and nerves within it, then cover the remaining tooth structure with a dental crown or veneer. Root canals are often seen as preferable to total extraction, as they allow you to keep your tooth and reduce the risk of bone loss.

Although root canals are often used as the punchline to dental jokes, the process itself shouldn't be very painful at all. Your jaw will be fully numbed before your dentist starts drilling, which ensures that the infection can be isolated and removed without causing you discomfort. After a crown has been placed and the numbing solution has worn off, you may experience slight soreness or pain, similar to the sensation you may feel when you have a crown placed over a large dental cavity.

What alternatives are available if you don't want a root canal?  

If left untreated, an infection inside your tooth may sometimes resolve on its own. However, leaving this bad bacteria to fester inside your tooth can be seriously harmful to your health, and not just dental health. Oral infections have been associated with a higher risk of endocarditis, an inflammation of the membranes that surround the heart.

So once you've decided your infected tooth needs treatment, a root canal isn't your only option. Depending on the location and condition of the tooth, an extraction may be a better bet. Many dentists caution against extraction of otherwise healthy teeth as, when years pass, the lack of pressure against the opposing tooth can reduce the bone density in your jaw and increase your risk of osteoporosis in that area. Without sufficient bone density, you won't be a good candidate for dental implants later in life.

But if your tooth is extracted and replaced with a dental implant or a dental bridge, you may be able to retain the form and function of a root-canaled-and-crowned tooth without undergoing the root canal itself. A dental implant is quite a bit more expensive than a simple root canal procedure, as it requires a titanium screw to be implanted into your jaw before the false tooth can be affixed to it. A dental bridge, on the other hand, is usually available at a cost comparable to a crown.