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What is Dental Pulp?

By T. Broderick
Updated Feb 13, 2024
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Dental pulp is the living interior of animal teeth. The pulp is made from connective tissue, nerves and odontoblasts, cells that create dentin. Dental pulp is vulnerable to the effects of tooth decay. The introduction of bacteria causes infection that leads to inflammation and pain. In many cases a root canal is the only treatment that can halt the progression of decay and save the tooth.

A vertical cross section of a tooth reveals four distinct layers. The visible area of the tooth is enamel, the hardest substance in the human body. The area below the gum line but still on the tooth's outside is an anchor material called cementum. The first inner layer of the tooth is dentin, a substance identical to elephant ivory. Finally, the interior of the tooth contains dental pulp, a tooth's only living component.

Dental pulp has three major functions. The first is to provide the non-living parts of the tooth with a constant supply of organic compounds. The nerves in the pulp sense hot or cold, and register pain if trauma should cause damage. The last function is that the pulp's odontoblasts repair damaged dentin. Tooth decay threatens the function of dental pulp.

Untreated cavities are a direct cause of dental pulp infection. As cavities grow deeper into the tooth, the pulp becomes exposed. When bacteria reaches the pulp, inflammation due to infection develops.

At the time of pulp exposure, a person may feel extreme tooth sensitivity and/or pain when the tooth is exposed to food or drink. Pain might intensify as infection develops. If the person does not see his or her dentist, pulp death and root necrosis are a real possibility.

A person with dental pulp inflammation who does visit his or her dentist can expect one of two outcomes. The first is where inflammation is still treatable. A dentist drills the cavity and performs dental restoration. Without the presence of tooth decay, the pulp will return to its normal, healthy state. When the infection has gone too far, or when pulp death has already occurred, a root canal is necessary.

A root canal, also known as endodonic therapy, is a procedure that completely removes inflected or dead dental pulp tissue and replaces it with a hard, inorganic material. After the patient is given local anesthesia, the procedure takes roughly one to two hours. Though the end result is a tooth without living tissue, it retains its functionality. Placing a crown over the tooth at the end of a root canal greatly decreases the chances that the tooth will fracture at a later date.

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