No More Natural Teeth: Deciding Between Implants and Dentures

3 Ways Your Dentist Can Test The Health Of Your Tooth's Pulp

by Jeremiah Barnett

Dental pulp in the center of a tooth's root canal contains nerves, tissue and blood cells that travel between the tooth and the gums. Pulp can become infected or damaged due to trauma or periodontal disease. The pulp can then put the tooth at greater risk of cavities, cracking, and suffering necrosis or tooth death.

If you have a toothache, your dentist might want to perform one or more vital pulp tests. The terminology might seem intimidating but most of these tests are simple, relatively painless and can help your dentist to quickly and accurately diagnose whether pulp damage is the cause of your toothache. Contact a specialist in endodontics to schedule the testing or to receive more information.

What are the common types of vital pulp tests?

Hot or Cold Test

Teeth sensitivity to temperatures occurs when the dentin layer begins to wear away and increase the exposure of the interior nerves. The dentin can erode from the inside out due to ongoing pulp damage.

Hot or cold testing involves the endodontist submerging your problem tooth in a dam filled with either a hot or cold material such as warmed gutta percha or ice. You will be asked to give a hand signal when you experience discomfort and indicate when the discomfort ceases.

Immediate discomfort can mean that the pulp is damaged and in need of quick repair with a root canal. No feeling whatsoever can mean that the pulp has died. Your dentist might require further testing before extracting the tooth as the hot and cold tests aren't the most reliable pulp test. But the tests are still sometimes used in patients who are nervous about undergoing one of the instrument-based tests right away.

Electric Test

Electric pulp testing involves the use of a conductive paste and a tool with a low electrical charge. Your endodontist will coat the problem tooth in the past, then hold the tool against the tooth to test for the response. If nothing happens initially, the current on the tool will be turned up slightly and the tooth checked again. Healthy teeth are also checked to form a baseline for the bad tooth's response.

A tooth that immediately and strongly shows a buzzing response likely has pulp damage and requires immediate root canal therapy to save the tooth. If the tooth doesn't respond at all, even with current adjustments, the pulp has likely already died and your dentist might want to extract the tooth.

Cavity Test

In rare cases where the pulp condition isn't ascertained through the other tests, a dentist might order a cavity test. The cavity test is rarely used due to the fact that the dentist has to open the tooth with a drill without giving the patient any anesthetic. Patients are often understandably apprehensive about undergoing a potentially painful procedure.

If your dentist has ordered a cavity test, discuss whether other options are available to test your pulp. To find out more, visit a website like