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A pulpotomy is a common dental procedure used in pediatric dentistry to help save primary or permanent teeth that are severely decayed or cracked. When a tooth has a carious exposure deep enough that it affects the coronal pulp, or “nerve” of the tooth, it can lead to pulpitis. Pulpitis is a condition where the pulp's inflammation can lead to pain, sensitivity to hot or cold, and discomfort when chewing.
To treat pulpitis, a pulpotomy is performed to remove the tooth's dental pulp, quickly relieve pain, and avoid a potential dental infection.
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The goal of both a pulpotomy and pulpectomy is to save the tooth and maintain it for function and esthetics. There are a few differences between the treatments depending on the tooth’s condition and a person’s clinical symptoms.
A pulpotomy will remove the coronal, or top portion of the pulp of the tooth. The coronal pulp is the part that is present above the gumline. In comparison, a pulpectomy is a similar dental procedure, but instead of simply removing the coronal pulp, it will remove the infected pulp from all parts of the tooth, including the pulp chamber and roots.
A pulpotomy is performed on teeth that are still “alive.” This means there is no abscess or fistula, no radiographic evidence of bone loss under the roots, and no spontaneous pain. This is why a pulpotomy is also known as a “vital pulp therapy” because it is essentially restoring a tooth to its healthy state.
A pulpectomy is completed for teeth that are considered necrotic or dead. This condition is when a tooth experiences spontaneous pain and bone loss and is known as irreversible pulpitis. Both procedures attempt to help restore a tooth to its natural function as an alternative to a dental extraction.
Several conditions may require pulpotomy treatment. Your dentist will be able to determine if you need a pulpotomy based on your clinical symptoms, your x-rays, and a dental evaluation. Some of these include:
Pulpotomies are traditionally performed on primary molars and are known as “baby root canals,” but it can also be done on adult teeth. A good candidate is a tooth with a deep cavity and inflamed pulp that is capable of healing with the pulpotomy and a medicated filling applied to seal the tooth and avoid any bacteria contamination. Once the surrounding tissue and bone are affected, a pulpotomy is not a good treatment option. The tooth will require a pulpectomy or dental extraction to avoid pain and infection.
It is important to also treat patients who are in good health to avoid potential bacterial infections. Patients with chronic inflammatory conditions or cancer may not be a good candidate for a pulpotomy.
A pulpotomy treatment can be performed by a general dentist, endodontist or pediatric dentist depending on the patient’s age and the tooth being treated. The pulpotomy technique involves the following steps:
You can expect to experience temporary bleeding, swelling, and numbness for a few hours following the procedure. Many dentists will recommend over-the-counter pain relief like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. It is also recommended to avoid eating until numbness resolves to avoid biting your lip or cheek. If you experience these symptoms longer than 48 hours, you should follow-up with your dentist or endodontist.
Most dental insurances will cover portions or the entire pulpotomy procedure, which will lower your out-of-pocket cost. You can expect a pulpotomy to cost $10 to $350 without any dental insurance.
While a pulpotomy and root canal both help save a tooth’s function and esthetics, they are not the same. A pulpotomy is when the coronal part of the pulp is cleaned out and disinfected, while a root canal treatment is a more invasive endodontic procedure that will clean out the entire infected pulp of the tooth and roots. A root canal then requires the canals of the roots instrumented, cleaned, dried and filled to prevent any bacteria from entering the tooth.
A pulpotomy is not considered any more painful than a traditional filling if you are not already symptomatic or sensitive to hot or cold. If you have clinical symptoms, sometimes a dentist may recommend an antibiotic to reduce inflammation.
A pulpotomy can be performed in permanent teeth. It is more likely to have a high success rate in baby teeth and an immature permanent tooth that is vital to an older permanent tooth. While it can be done in an older permanent tooth, it is less likely to be successful and may require a traditional root canal treatment.
Typically a pulpotomy procedure takes 30 to 45 minutes, but can take longer if there are any behavioral issues or complications requiring additional radiographs.
Baik SA et al. Pulpotomy vs pulpectomy techniques, indications and complications. Int J Community Med Public Health 2018; 5:xxx-xx.
Van Hassel HJ. Physiology of the human dental pulp. Oral Surg Oral Med Oral Pathol. 1971;32(1):126-134.