A toothache means a tooth has a problem, right? Most of the time, yes: the pain comes from a decayed or fractured tooth, or possibly a gum infection causing tooth sensitivity.
Sometimes, though, the pain doesn't originate with your teeth and gums. They're fine and healthy—it's something outside of your tooth causing the pain. We call this referred pain—one part of your body is sending or referring pain to another part, in this instance around your mouth.
There are various conditions that can create referred pain in the mouth, and various ways to treat them. That's why you should first find out the cause, which will indicate what treatment course to take.
Here are a few common non-dental causes for tooth pain.
Trigeminal Neuralgia. The trigeminal nerves situated on either side of the face have three large branches that extend throughout the face; the branch to the jaw allows you to feel sensation as you chew. When one of the nerve branches becomes inflamed, usually from a blood vessel or muscle spasm pressing on it, it can refer the pain to the jaw and seem like a toothache.
Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMD). These two joints that connect the lower jaw to the skull can sometimes become dysfunctional for a variety of reasons. This can set up a cycle of spasms and pain that can radiate throughout the jaw and its associated muscles. The pain can mimic a toothache, when it actually originates in the jaw joints.
Teeth Grinding. This is an unconscious habit, often occurring at night, in which people clench or grind their teeth together. Although quite common in children who tend to grow out of it, teeth grinding can continue into adulthood. The abnormally high biting forces from this habit can cause chipped, broken or loosened teeth. But it can also cause jaw pain, headaches and tenderness in the mouth that might feel like a toothache.
These and other conditions unrelated to dental disease can seem like a tooth problem, when they're actually something else. By understanding exactly why you're feeling pain, we can then focus on the true problem to bring relief to your life.
Pain has a purpose: it tells us when something's wrong with our bodies. Sometimes it's obvious, like a cut or bruise. Sometimes, though, it takes a bit of sleuthing to find out what's wrong.
That can be the case with a toothache. One possible cause is perhaps the most obvious: something's wrong with the tooth. More specifically, decay has invaded the tooth's inner pulp, which is filled with an intricate network of nerves that react to infection by emitting pain. The pain can feel dull or sharp, constant or intermittent.
But decay isn't the only cause for tooth pain: periodontal (gum) disease can trigger similar reactions. Bacteria living in dental plaque, a thin film of food particles on tooth surfaces, infect the gums. This weakens the tissues and can cause them to shrink back (recede) from the teeth and expose the roots. As a result, the teeth can become painfully sensitive to hot or cold foods or when biting down.
Finding the true pain source determines how we treat it. If decay has invaded the pulp you'll need a root canal treatment to clean out the infection and fill the resulting void with a special filling; this not only saves the tooth, it ends the pain. If the gums are infected, we'll need to aggressively remove all plaque and calculus (hardened plaque deposits) to restore the gums to health.
To further complicate matters, an infection from tooth decay could eventually affect the gums and supporting bone, just as a gum infection could enter the tooth by way of the roots. Once the infection crosses from tooth to gums (or gums to tooth), the tooth's long-term outlook grows dim.
So, if you're noticing any kind of tooth pain, or you have swollen, reddened or bleeding gums, you should call us for an appointment as soon as possible. The sooner we can diagnose the problem and begin appropriate treatment the better your chances of a good outcome — and an end to the pain.
If you would like more information on diagnosing and treating tooth pain, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Confusing Tooth Pain: Combined Root Canal and Gum Problems.”
There are few more painful experiences than a toothache. You can't ignore it: it's as if your mouth is screaming for relief.
But while the throbbing pain can tell you something's wrong, it may not be clear exactly what's wrong. There's more than one possibility — it could be with the tooth itself, the gums around the tooth or a combination of both.
In the first case, a toothache could be a sign of severe tooth decay within the tooth's innermost layer, the pulp. The pain you feel comes from the nerves within the pulp under attack from the infection.
For this level of decay there's one primary way to save the tooth and stop the pain: a root canal treatment. In this procedure we remove all the infected and dead tissue from the pulp and fill the empty chamber and root canals with a special filling. We then seal and crown the tooth to prevent further infection.
Another source of toothache happens when your gums have become painfully inflamed due to infection. This is usually caused by periodontal (gum) disease, triggered by a thin film of bacteria and food particles on tooth surfaces known as plaque. In this case, we must remove all plaque and calculus (hardened plaque deposits) from tooth and gum surfaces, including on the roots. Your gums can then heal and return to health.
But your situation could be more complex. Untreated tooth decay can advance to the roots and subsequently infect the gums. Likewise advanced gum disease can pass the infection from the gums to the root and into the pulp.Â For such cases you may need a specialist, either an endodontist specializing in root canal issues or a periodontist specializing in the gums.Â They can better diagnose the origin and extent of the problem and offer advanced techniques and treatments to deal with it.
It's possible in these more complex situations your tooth has become diseased beyond repair and must be replaced. It's important, then, that you see us if you experience any significant tooth pain, even if it seems to go away. The sooner we diagnose and begin treating the cause of your pain, the better your chances of regaining your dental health.
If you would like more information on treating dental disease, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Confusing Tooth Pain.”
Physical pain is never pleasant or welcomed. Nevertheless, it’s necessary for your well-being—pain is your body telling you something isn’t right and needs your attention.
That fully applies to tooth pain. Not all tooth pain is the same—the intensity, location and duration could all be telling you one of a number of things that could be wrong. In a way, pain has its own “language” that can give us vital clues as to what’s truly causing it.
Here are 3 types of tooth pain and what they might be telling you about an underlying dental problem.
Sensitivity to hot or cold. If you’ve ever had a sharp, momentary pain after consuming something hot like coffee or cold like ice cream, this could indicate several causative possibilities. You might have a small area of tooth decay or a loose filling. You might also have an exposed root due to gum recession, which is much more sensitive to temperature or pressure changes. The latter is also a sign of periodontal (gum) disease.
Acute or constant pain. If you’re feeling a severe and continuing pain from one particular area of your teeth (even if you can’t tell exactly which one), this could mean the pulp, the tooth’s innermost layer, has become infected with decay. The pain is emanating from nerves within the pulp coming under attack from the decay. To save the tooth, you may need a root canal treatment to remove the decayed tissue and seal the tooth from further infection. You should see your dentist as soon as possible, even if the pain suddenly stops—that only means the nerves have died, but the decay is still there and threatening your tooth.
Severe gum pain. If there’s an extremely painful spot on your gums especially sensitive to touch, then you may have an abscess. This is a localized area of infection that develops in the gums either as the result of periodontal (gum) disease, or an infection spreading from the tooth pulp into the gum tissues. You’ll need to see a dentist immediately for both pain relief and appropriate treatment (including a possible root canal) to heal the abscessed tissue.
If you would like more information on tooth pain and how to treat it, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Tooth Pain? Don’t Wait!”