How A Laser Could Replace Traditional Root Canal Therapy

Over 15 million people in the United States undergo root canal therapy every year. That aside, 15 percent of people who need treatment avoid going to see a root canal specialist because of unwarranted fears about the procedure. While root canal techniques are now more advanced than ever, most patients would agree that they would rather not have a root canal at all. The good news is that researchers may have found a way to deal with dental problems in a way that could spell the end of traditional root canal therapy.

How root canal therapy works

In some cases, the nerve inside your tooth dies. This problem can occur due to trauma and injury or because of serious tooth decay. To fight off infection, your body relies on a good blood supply, so the white blood cells can attack any bacteria. If the nerve dies, the blood supply ends with it, allowing bacteria to grow rapidly. An infection like this will often result in a painful abscess.

To deal with this type of infection, root canal therapy gets to the heart of the problem. A dentist from a site like removes the infected pulp in the middle of your tooth and fills the empty canal with a rubbery material called gutta percha. The dentist then fills the crown of the tooth with a regular filling, sealing off the canal.

Why root canal therapy has a bad reputation

Few people enjoy going to the dentist, but root canal treatments have a particularly negative reputation. The name alone seems to instil fear in many patients, and it's true to say that the description sounds rather ominous. Nonetheless, there are generally two reasons why root canals have such a bad reputation.

  • Most people believe that root canal therapy is painful. In fact, a root canal should largely take place without pain, as long as your dentist uses a local anesthetic.
  • Some people also worry that the treatment often fails. It's important to decide if you want to see a specialist for your root canal. Some procedures (like back teeth root canals) are more difficult than others, but specialists (endodontists) have a high success rate. The American Association of Endodontists report 89 percent patient satisfaction with a specialist.

Nonetheless, advances in technology increasingly point to a future where root canal therapy is no longer necessary.

The potential role of lasers

Researchers working at Harvard University believe they have developed a new laser technique that could replace root canal therapy.

The researchers carried out their investigations on mice and rats. They first drilled holes in the rodents' molars, before exposing the inner tooth to laser light. When the light hit dental tissues through the tiny drilled holes, special particles called reactive oxygen series (ROS) molecules started to develop. These molecules then stimulated the growth of amino acids, which eventually led to the growth of dentin. In principle, the procedure repaired damaged tissue that a dentist would currently remove as part of a root canal.

The research showed that lasers could offer a new treatment option that is cheap and more patient-friendly than a root canal. Nonetheless, more research is necessary before the work can progress to human clinical trials, and a number of challenges still prevail.

The challenges laser therapy still presents

Researchers on the project acknowledged that laser therapy still had some potential constraints.

This type of treatment could restore the internal dentin, but the process does not restore the damaged enamel layer. As such, your dentist would still need to use some form of veneer to protect the restored dentin. The dentin that this process replicates is also not exactly the same as the material your body would naturally produce, although researchers confirmed that the restored material is strong enough for normal functions like chewing.

The researchers also noted that it's also quite difficult to use the laser precisely enough. Specialists might struggle to focus the light on specific areas of the tooth, which could make it difficult to regenerate the dentin where you really need it.

Further research into the benefits of laser therapy is underway, and scientists cannot yet confirm when this treatment option could become available. Nonetheless, as an alternative way to treat root canal problems, many people can see the potential of this type of laser therapy.