The part of your teeth that you can actually see is the crown — which is the portion of the tooth that has erupted from your gums. This crown is covered in dental enamel, which acts as the tooth's protective casing. Beneath this enamel is dentin, which forms most of the tooth's physical mass. At the centre of this dentin is the tooth's dental pulp (its nerve). There are usually clear signs when this pulp becomes infected, namely noticeable (and worsening) discomfort. But sometimes the pulp's infection and ultimate death can be asymptomatic. You now have a dead tooth, but since there was no pain or discomfort, does the tooth need any treatment?
Count Yourself Lucky
If you didn't experience any unpleasant symptoms while your dental pulp was dying, count yourself lucky. There's no guarantee that this luck will continue indefinitely. The pulp was attacked by bacterial contaminants (possibly due to an untreated cavity that worked its way through the tooth's enamel and dentin). This infection doesn't disappear once the pulp has died.
Any infection in dental pulp has the potential to spread and affect surrounding tissues. The issue may not be isolated to the dead tooth—since bacterial infections aren't exactly this precise or neat. Anyone experiencing the symptoms associated with pulp necrosis (the death of their dental pulp) will need a root canal to remove the infection and restore the tooth to its former level of functionality. Even when the process was asymptomatic, you'll still need a root canal for your dead tooth.
A Root Canal
Root canals are a standard part of general dentistry. They have an unfortunate reputation, but the contemporary version of the process is quick and permanent, and won't be painful for the patient. Your dentist simply opens the tooth, removes the dead pulp, and then thoroughly disinfects the empty pulp chamber. An empty space at the centre of the tooth will clearly weaken the tooth, so this space is filled with a special latex (called gutta-percha). A temporary filling is added, and you can then go home.
At a subsequent appointment, your dentist will make sure that you haven't developed any symptoms which can indicate that some of the dead pulp has remained inside the tooth. Once they're sure that the procedure was a success, a permanent filling will be added. Some teeth (especially molars and premolars — the teeth you use to grind your food) may need some extra reinforcement, meaning a dental crown will be added.
It can be tempting to ignore a dead tooth. After all, it's dead, so what else could happen to it? Please have your dead tooth assessed by your dentist. Although the tooth is dead, the cause of its death (the bacterial infection) can return to attack the dental pulp inside your other teeth.
If you have more questions about dental health, make an appointment at a general dentistry clinic near you.