Tooth Pain: Minor Ache or Serious Problem?


Should you be thankful for a little pain? Most people would certainly say no. But looked at another way, the sensation of pain can be thought of as a protective response: namely, the body’s way of telling you that something is wrong. Tooth pain is a case in point. Right now, you might be able to ignore a dull ache or an occasional twinge… but later, you may realize that painful sensation was a clue to a more serious problem. And in dentistry (as in many other things), it’s far better to deal with a problem at an early stage than a later one.

Most everyone experiences some degree of dental pain at one time or another. How do you know whether the aching in your mouth is just temporary tooth sensitivity, or a sign of something more serious? The best way to find out exactly what’s causing tooth pain (and what should be done about it) is to visit your dentist. He or she will ask about the sensations you’re experiencing, perform a complete exam, and perhaps make diagnostic images (such as x-rays) to help pinpoint the cause of the pain. There are, however, a few general ways to categorize the symptoms of tooth pain and to narrow down its possible causes.

Minor sensitivity and discomfort, especially with hot or cold foods or liquids isn’t generally a sign of a serious problem. Many people experience increased sensitivity after a dental procedure (even a cleaning), or as a result of over-vigorous brushing, which may expose part of the tooth’s roots. But if the ache doesn’t go away after a short time, don’t ignore it.

The most common cause of persistent tooth pain is tooth decay, a chronic disease caused by harmful bacteria in the mouth. The sooner decay is treated, the less involved (and less costly) the treatment is likely to be. Your dentist can quickly identify tooth decay, effectively remove it, and restore your tooth to good (and pain-free) condition.

Sharp pain when biting generally indicates a problem that needs attention right away. The cause might be more advanced decay, a loose or eroded filling, or a cracked tooth. Sharp pain may indicate that the tooth’s pulp tissue (which contains blood vessels and nerves) is involved. If this is the case, you may need root canal treatment to remove the infected tissue, permanently relieve the pain—and save the tooth.

Prolonged pain when chewing, or after hot/ cold foods and beverages is usually a sign that the pulp tissue is damaged or inflamed; it may already be dying. This is often caused by deep decay or physical trauma, and it is likely that root canal treatment will be needed to preserve the tooth. It’s best for you to see a dentist right away.

Constant, dull ache in the top teeth and upper jaw might actually be sinus pain, which is sometimes felt as tooth pain, and vice versa. If the aching persists even when you aren’t sick, ask your dentist to determine whether it could have a dental cause—teeth grinding, for example.

Constant, sharp pain or pressure could indicate that pulp tissue is severely inflamed, or that the infection has spread beyond the tooth and formed as abscess in the gums. See your dentist as soon as possible! A root canal will probably be necessary—but it will quickly relieve the pain.

Call us at 1-800-238-5163 to find out about how dental savings plans can help make quality dental care affordable.


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