AS FAR BACK as the second or third century B.C., people have been trying to operate on infected teeth without extracting them. The journey from there to modern root canal therapy is a long and dramatic one.
Centuries of Endotontic Progress
Dentists from the mid-18th to late-19th centuries made amazing progress with root canal treatment, debunking the old idea that cavities are caused by “tooth worms” and inventing many tools we still use today, such as rubber dams to isolate an infected tooth during surgery, clamps, gutta-percha to fill teeth, and even X-rays. The field of anesthesiology (essential to what we do) also saw a lot of advancement.
The Big Roadblock
Alas, after all those discoveries, endodontics hit a massive roadblock in the early 20th century: focal infection theory. This baffling idea insisted (without evidence) that treating an infected tooth could cause chronic diseases. The truth is that bacteria in an untreated tooth infection can reach the bloodstream and become life-threatening. By treating the infection, we remove the dangerous bacteria, saving lives as well as teeth.
The mountain of evidence in favor of root canal treatment eventually debunked focal infection theory, but not before a lot of damage was done. For decades, teeth that could have been saved were pulled. Worse, perfectly healthy teeth were often pulled in hopes of curing an unrelated ailment.
Endodontics Triumphs at Last
In spite of that massive setback, endodontic treatment has seen incredible advancements since the 1950s and is one of the most successful surgeries in modern medicine.