What to Do When You Have a Toothache

Toothaches never occur at a convenient time. Not only do they cause severe pain, they also distract you and wreck your schedule. It is important to know how to handle a toothache to minimize the pain and disruption it can cause.

What are the Causes of Toothaches?

There are three major causes of toothaches. These can all cause a wide range of tooth pain from a minor, intermittent dull ache to a sharp, throbbing, unrelenting pain. In general, catching a toothache in the early stages and seeking treatment will prevent its progression into a severe toothache.

1. Cavities

Closeup of a cavity in permanent teeth
A large cavity. Most cavities are smaller and harder to notice.

By far, the most common cause of a toothache is a cavity. Cavities are the single most common dental maladies, and 92% of adults have had a cavity in their permanent teeth. A cavity occurs when the bad bacteria in our mouths penetrate through the enamel into the core of the tooth. As the bacteria work their way closer and closer to the nerve within the center of the tooth, the toxins they produce can reach and irritate the nerve. The hollow chamber inside teeth contains both nerves and blood vessels. The nerve sends the painful signal to the brain, and the blood vessels bring inflammatory cells to fight the toxins.

Early cavities typically cause no pain. It is only after a cavity progresses into the core of the tooth that it becomes sensitive or tender. Catching cavities early with consistent dental visits helps you prevent both toothaches and expensive dental treatment!

2. Cracked Teeth

Another common cause of toothaches is cracked teeth. Tooth cracks and fractures are very common, especially among people who clench or grind their teeth. An early crack can cause some sensitivity to cold or minor twinges on chewing something hard. Severe tooth cracks can extend down the root of a tooth and cause extreme pain from any pressure at all.

The exposed portion of a tooth (called the crown) is covered with a single continuous layer of enamel. Enamel is the hardest substance in the human body, much harder than bones. This is important for a tooth to be able to withstand the heavy forces of chewing.

When a tooth cracks, that single continuous layer can no longer do its job to hold the tooth together and bear those forces. An enamel crack allows hot and cold sensations direct access to the inside of a tooth. As a crack worsens, food begins to have a wedging effect when you chew, causing a physical separation between the broken sections. That separation creates a pinching sensation of the nerve, which is what causes the twinges you feel when chewing.

3. Dead or Dying Nerve

When the nerve inside a tooth becomes infected or inflamed, it can eventually die. The two causes we listed above, cavities and cracks, can both lead to infection or inflammation of the nerve. A dying nerve goes through a progression of symptoms from minor sensitivity to severe throbbing toothache. If you do not address the problem, and the nerve dies, sometimes the pain could actually go away.

This is NOT good, though. A severe toothache that stops hurting is an indication that the nerve is dead. Many people mistakenly think the problem is then “cured”. It is actually much worse. Dead tissue always festers and turns into an abscess sooner or later. Then the pain comes back with a vengeance.

Why Do Toothaches Hurt so Badly?

Woman pointing to toothache
Toothaches can cause severe pain, due to the unique anatomy of teeth.

Some people say that a toothache pain is the worst pain you can experience. The reason toothaches can be so severe is because of the unique anatomy of a tooth.
A tooth consists of a small amount of nerves and blood vessels completely encased in hard, unyielding tooth structure. When inflammation occurs inside a closed space, pressure builds up very quickly.

This pressure increase is what leads to the severe pain of a toothache. Most people actually experience relief from the pain of a severe toothache when the jaw begins to swell because that means the pressure is no longer contained in one small space. This, too, is dangerous!

Swelling is a sign that the infection is growing and spreading.

When to Go to the Dentist

In order to prevent a severe toothache, you should see a dentist at the first sign of discomfort on a tooth. As soon as you notice something feeling unusual on a tooth, make an appointment with us for an evaluation. If you are a new to the area and are looking for a Pensacola dentist, we are happy to help in your current situation and get you established as a patient.

In order to save lots of money, you should see your dentist regularly to catch problems in their early stages. Consistent dental visits not only catch problems in their early stages; they also help you prevent problems from occurring at all.

When to Go to the Emergency Room

Man icing jaw due to toothache
There are some situations where an emergency room visit is warranted.

Some toothaches are true emergencies! What is commonly misunderstood is the fact that pain is not the best indication of an emergency toothache. Much more important than your pain level is the presence of any swelling.

If you or a loved one experiences any swelling in the head and/or neck related to a bad tooth, go to the emergency room as soon as possible.

In worst case scenarios, the infection from a bad tooth can spread into other parts of the body and actually kill you. Any tooth infection left untreated can spread into the bloodstream, leading to sepsis. An infection on an upper tooth can spread to the brain. A lower tooth infection can spread into the airway and cause you to stop breathing.

These infections are serious and need emergency treatment as soon as possible.

Do You or Someone You Love Have a Toothache?

Call our office today! The sooner we see you, the sooner we can help you address your dental problem. We aim to prevent severe toothaches and infections whenever we can. Our front office will schedule a visit for you with our doctors at their next opening!