Dentist cures root canal blues

If all you want for Christmas are your two front teeth, then give Santa a call. But if you’re facing a complicated root canal, a dentist trained in endodontics would be a better bet.

Faculty of Dentistry graduate student Houman Abtin embodies the traits and skills that anyone in knee-buckling pain would hope to find.

“I know I’m capable of saving the patient’s tooth without causing discomfort,” says Abtin, a dentist with 10 years of experience who is earning a master’s degree in craniofacial science with a diploma in endodontics, the treatment of diseases of the tooth root and pulp.

Abtin says he has learned a lot from working with diverse populations, thanks to a community outreach program at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH).

“Sometimes a person needs dental care, but is also hooked up to a heart monitor or could be receiving immune suppressant drugs for an organ transplant,” says Abtin.

Despite these challenges, the rewards are immense, says Abtin, recalling how impressed he was by the regenerative power of one particular patient. One 85-year-old male patient at VGH complained of toothache in his back molar. Abtin removed the diseased tissue from the root and saw from the man’s X-ray that bacteria had caused substantial bone loss around the molar root.

However, during a check up 10 months later, Abtin found the patient had up to 10 millimeters of bone growth around the treated tooth.

“When a root canal is irrigated and bacteria are cleaned out, the bone can grow back 90 per cent of the time,” says Abtin, adding, “It’s an amazing feeling to know that my treatment has created an environment where the body can repair itself.”

The community service experience, given its breadth and diversity, is invaluable for helping students deal with the unexpected, says Dr. Jeffrey Coil, head of the graduate program and an assistant professor who teaches oral biological and medical sciences.

Coil explains that students get to refine and augment their clinical skills and also translate their cutting-edge research into front line care. “For instance, graduate students will have studied the most effective treatments for root canal disinfection, looking at different combinations and concentrations of irrigants such as sodium hypochlorite, EDTA and chlorhexidine.”ï

To read more about the Faculty of Dentistry’s endodontic research, visit:

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UBC Reports | Vol. 56 | No. 12 | Dec. 3, 2010

Houman Abtin compares doing root canals to playing the blues. Photo: Martin Dee

Houman Abtin compares doing root canals to playing the blues. Photo: Martin Dee

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ABCs of a root canal

A musician and huge B.B. King fan, UBC endodontics graduate student Houman Abtin likens the “tactile sensitivity” required for a good endodontist to that of playing superb blues.

“We know what the instrument should feel like when it comes into contact with different parts of the tooth structure. Depending on how it has been affected by bacteria, it has a different sensation.”

After drilling through the tooth, the endodontist or dentist inserts an instrument, a wire-like file into the root canal which measures 20-25 millimetres long. The practitioner then removes the infected pulp and cleans and irrigates the canal with a solution to kill bacteria.

“I realize most people regard root canals as they would a mortgage, but there is tremendous job satisfaction for me because endodontists are the last line of defense for saving a tooth,” says Abtin.
Although bacteria are always present in our mouths, a change in saliva or trauma to a tooth or the mouth as a whole can compromise the tooth’s defense mechanism.

“Then bacteria that are always present in the mouth turn lethal.”

UBC endodontics program

The endodontics program at UBC is one of only two in Canada and the only one in western Canada. From the Greek endo, or inside, and odont for tooth, this specialization immerses students in root canal anatomy and biology.

Endodontists must pay close attention to the microscopic irrigation channels in the root canal systems. If bacteria get into the system and cause disease of the pulp, or root interior that houses the nerves and vessels, the circulation to the root is permanently damaged.

With compromised blood flow, the body’s defence system can’t mount a response, and the tooth pulp dies.

To read more about the Faculty of Dentistry’s endodontic research, please visit:

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