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There’s an old joke that goes something like this: a patient tells his doctor that his arm hurts every time he moves it a certain way. The doctor replies that the solution is simple – “Stop moving it like that!”.

Just as the causes of arm pain are incredibly varied, so too are the causes of tooth pain. You can get a toothache from something as simple as gum inflammation – as well as from much more serious dental concerns. To better understand the causes of toothaches, let’s take a moment to better understand the tissues in and around the teeth that can become sensitive to pain.

The sources of toothaches: gums and pulp

The hard outer shell of your tooth, called the enamel, is not connected to any nerves. That means toothaches are almost exclusively caused by gum irritation or irritation in the tissues below the enamel of your tooth. In most cases, that means irritation in the tooth’s pulp, which contains nerves.

Gum irritation can be caused by something as simple as having something lodged between your teeth – be careful when eating popcorn! The gums are located very close to the teeth, so many people experience gum pain as tooth pain.

There are many different sources of pulp irritation. When your enamel is too thin, heat and cold can pass through tubules in your dentin and reach the nerves in the tooth’s pulp, prompting a pain response. Trauma, decay, and other problems can also irritate the nerves in the pulp. 

What are the causes of toothaches?

As you can already tell, there are many possible causes of toothaches: anything that irritates the pulp or gums can qualify. Some of the more common sources of toothaches we see include:

  • Tooth decay (cavities) and abscessed teeth
  • Foreign objects lodged in the gums
  • Fractures, cracks, and other tooth trauma
  • Worn enamel leading to sensitivity
  • Gum infections
  • Tooth eruption (teeth coming out of the gums – typically wisdom teeth in adults)
  • Damaged dental fillings

One of the more common causes of worn enamel, fractures, and other conditions that can lead to toothaches is a condition called bruxism, the medical term for repeatedly grinding or clenching your teeth.

What treatments are available for toothaches?

There are probably as many treatments for toothaches as there are causes. You should know, however, that many of these treatments work to reduce symptoms, rather than eliminate underlying causes. If you have a chronic toothache, or the pain from a toothache is severe, visit your dentist as soon as possible.

At-home remedies

  • Rinse your mouth with warm saltwater. This can help dislodge any foreign objects that are stuck between your teeth and in your gums. It can also act as a disinfectant, and even reduce inflammation.
  • Pain medication. Over-the-counter analgesics like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can provide pain relief. Where possible, NSAIDs like ibuprofen are preferred, because they reduce inflammation as well.
  • Use a cold compress. They can reduce pain and inflammation. Never apply ice directly to your face – be sure to wrap your compress in a towel or another insulating barrier.

What happens when you visit the dentist?

The treatment for your toothache will vary depending on the cause. Your dentist will ask you a number of questions to help determine the cause of the toothache – they’ll also perform a dental exam. 

The dentist may have to fill cavities, remove foreign objects, or perform a root canal. In the case of serious periodontal disease, they may refer you to a specialist. They may also fill cracks and fractures caused by bruxism or trauma. They might advise you to engage in preventive care, like the use of a night guard.

In other words, it all depends on what’s causing the toothache!

If you’re in serious pain, and your toothache won’t go away, we can help. Our Edmonton emergency dentists are available 24/7, and we have locations throughout the city to serve you. You don’t have to suffer all night waiting to see a dentist. Come see us right away.