Updated: Jul 1, 2022
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Maybe you feel a dull, throbbing pain in your jaw. Maybe one side of your mouth hurts when you bite down on something. Maybe you get a sharp pain whenever you drink a cold beverage.
Toothaches can take a lot of different forms, but they usually have one thing in common: they tend to be a symptom of an issue that a dentist will need to address.
Even if the pain subsides on its own, that doesn’t mean the issue has resolved itself. Toothaches often come back (and sometimes with a vengeance!). If your tooth or jaw is hurting, there’s a good chance that your body's telling you that something is wrong – don’t ignore it.
What causes toothaches?
There isn't one single cause of toothaches, and because dental pain is usually a symptom of a more serious problem, it's important that you see your dentist as soon as possible.
The most common causes of dental pain include:
tooth decay – if bacteria in plaque erodes the enamel surface of your tooth, this can expose the sensitive nerve endings within the underlying tooth structure (dentine) and can continue to infiltrate into the center of the tooth reaching the pulp.
gum disease – if plaque remains beneath the gum, it can damage the bone that supports your teeth and the roots of your teeth as well. This causes teeth to loosen and ache.
abscesses – tooth decay and gum disease can cause an abscess to form below or alongside the tooth root, which causes pain and spreads infection.
trauma – if your tooth gets chipped or cracked, this can also expose the pulp and put you at risk of infection.
impaction – if a tooth doesn't emerge fully from the gums, it can irritate the surrounding nerves, causing pain. This is most common with wisdom teeth and other molars.
bruxism (teeth grinding) – if you grind your teeth at night or during the day, this causes the teeth to wear down over time exposing the sensitive middle layers of teeth and can also strain the surrounding supporting structures.
misaligned teeth – if your teeth are crooked or not properly aligned, this can cause uneven pressure in the mouth and may require orthodontic treatment.
Why you need to see your dentist
In many cases, toothaches are just one symptom of a bigger problem that can affect your oral health and your general health if you don't seek treatment. They don't usually go away on their own, either. The longer you put off visiting your dentist, the more serious the problem could become.
When you visit your dentist for a check-up, they'll examine your mouth to determine the cause of your pain and recommend the most suitable treatment. This may involve root canal therapy or a filling in the case of tooth decay and cavities, placing a crown over a damaged tooth, or treating your gums.
Impacted teeth need to be removed to prevent infections, crowding and alignment problems, while teeth that are already misaligned can be corrected with orthodontic treatment. If you grind your teeth, your dentist may recommend a custom splint.
How to ease discomfort
If you can't get to the dentist right away, try these simple home remedies to relieve some discomfort before your appointment.
1. Gargle salt water
Salt water helps to remove bacteria from the mouth and can reduce swelling. Add between a quarter and half a teaspoon of salt to warm water and gargle for at least five seconds. Take care not to swallow the water.
2. Take a painkiller
Over-the-counter pain relief medication such as aspirin can ease the pain if it's distracting or you're finding it difficult to sleep. Painkillers should only be swallowed and not applied directly to the gums, as the acid can burn gum tissue.
3. Apply ice
Place a cold compress or ice pack against your cheek to help numb the pain. Don't apply ice directly to your tooth, as toothaches often cause heightened sensitivity to temperature.
These home remedies offer quick relief from toothaches but the effect is only temporary. To eradicate the pain for good, your dentist needs to treat the cause, not the symptom.
How to prevent toothaches
When you've gone through the discomfort of a toothache, the last thing you want is to experience it again.
The good news is that many toothaches are preventable, as long as you take care of your teeth and gums by practicing good oral hygiene and keeping up with your regular dental check-ups.