Okay, so it’s an unofficial day of observance at best, but February 9th has been declared National Toothache Day! Why? Unfortunately, many people don’t take toothaches seriously enough, and tend to ignore tooth pain and discomfort until it becomes severe. We’ve decided to jump on the unofficial holiday bandwagon and give you a run-down on the facts about toothaches so you can keep yourself pain-free and enjoy a lifetime of healthy teeth! Here are our top 5 facts about toothaches.
Fact 1: No Toothache Is Ever “Normal”
But that doesn’t mean every toothache is an emergency, either! Ideally, you should be more or less unaware of your teeth on a day to day basis. They should hang out in your head and do their jobs without complaint. Sure, you may occasionally bite into an unexpected unpopped popcorn kernel and wake a tooth up for a short time, but discomforts should ideally be mild and short-lived.
If you notice your teeth routinely, especially with specific triggers, you may have sensitive teeth. Tooth sensitivity isn’t the same as a true toothache. Sensitive teeth generally start talking when they’re exposed to changes in temperature, acidity, or exposure to specific foods like chocolate or pineapple. If the idea of biting into a popsicle makes you cringe, you may have sensitive teeth. We’ll delve into details about tooth sensitivity in another post. For now, just take comfort that, while uncomfortable, tooth sensitivity is usually not an emergency, and there are steps we can take to help lessen your symptoms.
A true toothache is pain or discomfort that doesn’t need a trigger, or that lingers for a prolonged time after exposure to one of the triggers listed above. Toothaches can be mild annoyances or severe pains that keep you awake at night. They may come and go, dominating your attention for days at a time and then seeming to disappear, only to return weeks later. Regardless of how it manifests, a toothache is always worth talking to your dentist about, even if it’s not really an emergency. Remember, your teeth should never hurt!
Fact 2: You Might Feel the Pain Far from the Source
One of the weirdest things about toothaches is that you might feel the pain in a totally different area from where the actual problem is. The nerves that serve each tooth and each area of gum tissue crisscross each other in a complex web. Each nerve branch may serve several teeth and a large area of the gums. While these nerves can give highly specific information, even sensing a tiny raspberry seed interfering with your bite or telling you what specific corner of a certain tooth is hitting the wrong way, they can also give very misleading signals.
Part of the reason for the mixed messages is that many toothaches come from inflammation. Whether due to an infected tooth, deep cavity, or gum disease, inflammation usually means swelling. As the affected tissue swells, it can put pressure on surrounding nerves, making it feel like your pain originates from a completely different area than where the problem actually is.
In fact, many toothaches aren’t toothaches at all! Painful jaw joints, ear infections, and sinus pressure can all feel like toothaches. We’ve had many patients come for emergency dental exams, convinced they’ll need a root canal treatment, only to find out it was their stuffy nose all along. That said, we’d rather you call us if you think there’s a problem than ignore a potentially serious toothache!
Fact 3: Toothaches Can Send Very Different Signals
Too often, the word “toothache” is used like it means one specific experience, but tooth pain can manifest in a wide variety of sensations. While we hope you never have to describe your painful teeth to us, here are a few useful adjectives to consider:
- Sharp/Stabbing/Shooting: Yikes! None of those sound like a great time. Sharp, stabbing, and shooting pains are pretty much what you’d imagine. These are the pains that will wake you up from a dead sleep. They may feel like electricity or needles, and may feel fairly intense. They may be constant, or may come and go, but they definitely get your attention!
- Aching: An ache can be dull or intense, but it’s a constant annoyance. Aches are generally fairly steady, ongoing discomforts. Aches frequently feel like they affect an entire region of your mouth, or at least several teeth, and may be difficult to pin down to one specific area.
- Throbbing: If it feels like your tooth has a heartbeat, you have throbbing pain. Throbbing pain seems to have a rhythm, but not the kind you’ll want to dance to. Throbbing pain can be associated with an aching sensation or a sharp sensation and be mild to intense.
- Dull: Just like you’d expect, a dull pain is something that you almost feel like you could ignore. Almost. It may fade into the background, but never quite goes away. Dull tooth pain is usually associated with an ongoing ache.
- Constant: Constant pain is, well, constant. It’s steady and ongoing and doesn’t seem to ebb and flow.
- Intermittent: This is on-and-off pain. Sharp, dull, aching, throbbing, any of these types of pain can be intermittent if they seem to come and go. Remember, just because your toothache seems to magically get better doesn’t mean the problem has resolved!
Fact 4: Each Type of Tooth Pain May Have a Different Meaning
Toothaches happen for many reasons. Cavities are one of the most common reasons for tooth pain. Untreated decay may reach the innermost part of a tooth, creating an infection and even abscess. Pressure from inflamed gums or food caught between your teeth can create intense toothaches. The ligament that surround the root of your tooth can become inflamed from grinding, clenching, or accidentally biting too hard on a piece of food.
After an injury, the nerve of a tooth can die. This may happen fairly soon after an incident, or it could happen years later. Teeth can become painful or send very confusing signals as the nerve dies. Teeth needing root canal treatments may feel heat sensitive, may ache and throb, may send shooting pains, and then may go quiet for days or weeks at a time. Remember when we said intermittent pain doesn’t mean the problem went away? A dying nerve is one of the main culprits for tooth pain that can fool you into thinking everything is okay when it’s really not! Even if you think your tooth pain has gone away, always let your dental team know about it at your regular dental health check-ups!
Regardless of what kind of tooth pain you’re experiencing, we won’t be able to determine its cause without diagnostics. Usually, that means an image such as an x-ray. Ideally, we’ll be able to compare the x-ray of your aching tooth with a recent check-up x-ray and look for any changes. Our state-of-the-art office here at LBD also has infrared cameras and a 3D ConeBeam CT scanner that can show problems that don’t show up on regular x-rays. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of taking a look. No matter what’s causing your pain, we want to help resolve it for you!
Fact 5: An Untreated Toothache Can Become a True Medical Emergency
Fortunately, most toothaches come down to a simple cavity or sensitivity. However, no toothache should ever be ignored. Left untreated, tooth infections can become serious medical emergencies. Remember that the roots of your teeth sit very close to important blood vessels and vital structures that feed your brain and heart. Untreated dental abscesses can spread to these structures and become life threatening. Dental infections can cause swelling that can block your airways, and can spread to other areas.
If your toothache comes with a high fever, severe headache, nausea, severe swelling (especially swelling that affects your neck or areas near your eyes), or difficulty breathing, you should skip the dentist and head to the emergency room.
It’s always better to get checked out before your tooth pain becomes a serious problem, so don’t ignore it! Always feel free to make an appointment to get your problem teeth checked out. The sooner we treat a problem tooth, the easier (and less expensive) it will be! Of course, you can prevent many toothaches with excellent home care and regular check-ups with your dental team at Lake Baldwin Dental. Keep smiling, Orlando!