Dentists use the term “root canal” in referring to the tiny, narrow passageways that branch from a central, hollow space in your tooth (called the pulp chamber) down to the ends of the tooth roots. The term can also be used as a shorthand for “root canal treatment” — that is, the procedure used to save the tooth if the soft tissue deep inside of it (called pulp) becomes acutely inflamed or infected.
If tooth pulp becomes acutely inflamed or infected because of decay or injury, the tissue will need to be removed in order to save the tooth and stop the infection from spreading. As an adult, you don't actually need the pulp — its primary use is to aid in tooth development during childhood.
You could have the whole tooth extracted, but it's always better to try to save it — especially since root canal treatment is routine and has a very high success rate (over 90%). Saving the tooth can prevent other troubles from occurring later on; these could include bite problems from teeth shifting position, difficulty eating, and loss of jawbone volume and density.
The procedure normally causes no more discomfort that a filling would. Root canal treatment may have a bad reputation, but it is undeserved; in this case it's the disease that's to blame and not the cure. In other words, the infections that make the treatment necessary in the first place are often painful because they are inflaming tissue that has lots of nerves and therefore is very sensitive. Root canal treatment actually relieves this pain!
After numbing the area, a tiny hole in the crown (top) of your tooth is made to access the pulp chamber and canals. The diseased tissue is removed, and the pulp chamber and the canal(s) are disinfected all the way to the root end(s). Teeth in the front of the mouth have one root and generally one canal; back teeth have two or three roots and generally three or four canals. Those canals and the pulp chamber are filled with an inert, biocompatible material, and sealed with adhesive cement. The access hole will receive a temporary filling.
Your tooth may feel sensitive for a few days, but any discomfort can usually be relieved with over-the-counter pain medication or anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen. You will be instructed to avoid chewing on that tooth until it receives its permanent filling, which can be placed a few days later or immediately. Depending on how damaged the tooth was to begin with, it may need a full-coverage crown. Those options will be discussed with you.
Keep your teeth decay-free by brushing and flossing every day. Eat a healthy diet low in sugar and avoid acidic beverages such as soda. Have regular professional cleanings and exams. And if you're active in sports, consider ordering a custom-made mouthguard to protect your teeth from injury.