Root canal treatment is a common dental operation aimed at removing the contents of the geometrically complex canal chambers within teeth; its purpose is to remove diseased or infected tissue. The complex chamber is first enlarged and shaped by instruments to a size sufficient to deliver antibacterial fluids. These irrigants help to dissolve dying tissue, disinfect the canal walls and space and flush out debris. The effectiveness of the procedure is limited by access to the canal terminus. Endodontic research is focused on finding the instruments and clinical procedures that might improve success rates by more effectively reaching the apical anatomy. The individual factors affecting treatment outcome have not been unequivocally deciphered, partly because of the difficulty in isolating them and in making the link between simplified, general experimental models and the complex biological objects that are teeth. Explicitly considering the physical processes within the root canal can contribute to the resolution of these problems. The central problem is one of fluid motion in a confined geometry, which makes the dispersion and mixing of irrigant more difficult because of the absence of turbulence over much of the canal volume. The effects of treatments can be understood through the use of scale models, mathematical modelling and numerical computations. A particular concern in treatment is that caustic irrigant may penetrate beyond the root canal, causing chemical damage to the jawbone. In fact, a stagnation plane exists beyond the needle tip, which the irrigant cannot penetrate. The goal is therefore to shift the stagnation plane apically to be coincident with the canal terminus without extending beyond it. Needle design may solve some of the problems but the best design for irrigant penetration conflicts with that for optimal removal of the bacterial biofilm from the canal wall. Both irrigant penetration and biofilm removal may be improved through canal fluid agitation using a closely fitting instrument or by sonic or ultrasonic activation. This review highlights a way forward by understanding the physical processes involved through physical models, mathematical modelling and numerical computations.