Many patients come to us with pain caused by an infection within the root canal of a tooth. But can an infection in a tooth also infect the gums, or vice versa?
To answer that, we need to think about the structure of the tooth. Tooth roots look almost like the long tails of a kite, and they extend down into the jawbone, anchoring the tooth there.
The interior of each root contains a space called the root canal. It includes nerves, blood vessels, and tissue that nourish the tooth walls as they are growing—very important in younger teeth but less important when the tooth has stopped growing.
These living tissues, or “pulp,” inside the tooth can suffer from a bacterial overgrowth that:
- Attacks the nerves, causing pain.
- Can weaken the walls of the tooth.
- Can escape from the tooth and spread to the gums.
Yes, an infection within a tooth may be the source of an infection in the gums too. And then through a root canal treatment, we can clean out the source of the infection. Then, a gum disease treatment can ensure that the gums are free of infection too.
Gum Disease Infecting a Tooth
In some cases, a major gum infection could be the source of bacteria that eventually finds its way into the interior of a tooth, causing an infection there. Bacterial buildup is often caused when plaque is allowed to form and then spreads into the gums. Read more about these scenarios here.
There is a small opening at the tip (apex) of each tooth root, which allows nerves and blood vessels to pass through. Bacteria can sometimes find an entry point there, through canals in the sides of the tooth, or through an opening caused by an accident or repeated procedures.
A Tooth Infection Spreading to the Gums
However, bacteria can spread the other direction as well. For example, tooth decay caused by a cavity can first cause an infection inside a tooth, which can then spread out of the tooth to the gums and other soft tissues in your mouth.
It often first attacks the ligament that surrounds the tooth roots and attaches them to the jawbone. Then, the infection can move up out of the jaw into the gums around the tooth.
That’s why a painful attack of gum disease can sometimes feel centered around just one tooth. It may have only just spread out from that tooth and caused a swelling in the immediate surrounding gums. It could also cause a gum abscess, which is a pocket of fluid.
Can the Tooth Be Saved?
During a root canal procedure, your endodontist will work hard to clean out every bit of infected tissue within the tooth. This can save the walls of the tooth, because bacterial infections create acid that will slowly dissolve tooth enamel.
But what if the bacterial infection started in the gums and slowly worked its way down through the ligament surrounding the tooth, one or more openings in the tooth, and then into the root canal tissues? In that case, the bacteria would have had much more time to weaken the walls of the tooth.
We will scan a tooth, jaw, and surrounding tissues before a root canal procedure. Dr. Stubbs is very experienced with root canal treatments and knows when a tooth is a good candidate. If the walls of the tooth are too thin, he will let you know and give a recommendation for an alternate procedure.
Save Your Teeth, Gums, and Overall Oral Health With a Root Canal
If an infection from the root canal has spread out to the gums, there may still be a good chance of saving the tooth. We can use our GentleWave ultrasonic technology to thoroughly disinfect the interior of the tooth. Then, your family dentist can treat any remaining gum disease, stamping out the infection.
Standard root canal procedures have a very high success rate. The scenarios above are good reminders that tooth pain should not be ignored. When you feel persistent discomfort, call your dentist or endodontist. We may be able to relieve the problem quickly, before any bacteria has a chance to destroy a tooth for good.