Toothaches can range from mildly annoying to unbearably painful and are never a good sign. Pain is your body’s way of signaling that there’s a problem, and tooth pain usually indicates the presence of a cavity.
The Body’s Warning Signs. This pain or sensitivity can present itself in different ways. At first, your discomfort might be infrequent and easy to manage, making it easy to overlook. Your tooth may become sensitive to hot, cold, or especially sweet food and drinks—the act of eating and drinking, in general, can start to cause painful sensations. Pain can also be triggered by breathing in cold or moist air.
As a cavity grows, your pain and discomfort are likely to become more intense and occur more frequently. Tooth sensitivity can develop into pain that is distracting and sometimes debilitating. Some patients experience sharp, shooting pains, while others report difficulty eating, sleeping, and concentrating due to constant, radiating pain in the jaw and face.
Common Causes. The cause of toothaches and other forms of dental pain usually fit into one of three categories: decay, disease, or damage.
Tooth decay occurs when tooth enamel is eaten away by bacteria left unchecked in the mouth. These bacteria can get through the protective outer surface of the tooth, causing a hole, known as a cavity. When left untreated, a cavity can lead to an abscess, which occurs when the root of the tooth dies and becomes infected.
Gum disease, also known as periodontal disease, is another potential cause of your tooth pain. Periodontal disease has the same cause as cavities—excessive bacteria in your mouth which can settle around and below the gum line—causing the gums to become inflamed and infected. This causes gums to swell, recede, and become tender, and as the damage worsens, tooth loss can occur. While many of these symptoms can cause tooth and jaw pain, many cases of gum disease go unnoticed, so be sure to be diligent with your preventative care regimen.
Damaged teeth are those that have been affected by circumstances other than bacteria, such as chipping a tooth on hard food or issues involving trauma, such as a hard collision in a sports game. These circumstances can cause chipped, cracked, or broken teeth—all of which can cause dental and facial pain.
Take Action. When you start to notice tooth pain, even relatively dull and infrequent pain, set up an appointment with your dentist as soon as possible. They can help identify the cause of the pain and create a treatment plan that’s right for you.
During your appointment, your dentist will conduct a series of tests that check the integrity of the surface of the tooth as well as the underlying elements, like the pulp, nerves, and root. Your dentist may decide to take x-rays, which are also very useful for finding problems with the roots of your teeth and the jawbone. Once they’ve analyzed your results, your dentist can then determine the best way to address your pain and its cause.
Remember, call your dentist at the first sign of tooth pain; don’t wait until the pain is unbearable! The more pain you’re having, the more severe the problem is likely to be, making for a more intensive recovery as well.
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