When do I need to go to the dentist about my tooth pain?

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If you experience persistent pain or you have a chipped or broken tooth, you may want to schedule a dentist appointment.

For many adults, the decision to make a dentist appointment can be difficult.

Being able to identify the source of your tooth pain and discomfort can help you make your decision. Some issues can be resolved by changing your daily routine, other issues cannot. Making this decision does not have to be difficult, however, with a little guidance you can avoid unnecessary tooth pain.

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Causes of tooth pain

Tooth pain can be divided into two categories, pain caused by dental issues and pain caused by non-dental issues. For either category if the pain persists for more than a day or two, then it is a good idea to have it checked out by a dentist.

Dental causes¹

  • Gum disease – gum disease, or periodontal disease, can cause the gums to become painful, red and swollen. 

  • Tooth decay – when bacteria gets a foothold on a tooth, it can cause the tooth to decay. Decay has various stages, the most minor being a cavity. Cavities are usually not painful unless they are allowed to progress significantly. If the decay is allowed to infect the pulp of the tooth it becomes abscessed, which is very painful. 

  • Damaged teeth – teeth can be damaged in a number of ways. If your tooth has been cracked, chipped, or broken it may become painful. Chipped teeth can also cut the cheeks and tongue if they are left sharp and untreated. 

  • Malocclusion – malocclusion is an uneven bite. Malocclusion can cause soreness both in teeth and in the jaw.

Non-dental causes²

  • Muscle pain – when the muscles around the jaw or cranium are overused, they can become sore. This pain isn’t always easy to pinpoint and is sometimes identified as a toothache or tooth pain.

  • Sinus infections – there are two sinuses near the back of the mouth. If these become infected they can fill with fluid an put pressure on the back of the mouth. This causes pain and discomfort. Taking a decongestant can help alleviate the pressure and the pain.

  • Cluster headaches – often cluster headaches are associated with tooth pain, although it isn’t known the exact connection. 

  • Vitamin deficiency – A lack of vitamin B12 has been connected with tooth pain.

  • Neurologic abnormalities – nerve conditions such as trigeminal neuralgia can be associated with sharp and persistent pain in the mouth.

Symptoms of tooth pain

Pain is a major indicator that there is something wrong in your mouth. There are different types of pain associated with different dental conditions and issues. Pain can be sharp, dull, throbbing, or aching depending on the issue. Regardless of pain type, it is important to notify your dentist so that you can get the issue resolved.³

Common types of tooth pain

  • Sensitivity hot or cold food or drink – if your teeth are sensitive to hot or cold food or drink for a short period of time it is likely nothing serious. If the pain lasts for half a minute or more, you may have a more serious issue in the pulp of a tooth.⁴

  • Pain when biting down – a sharp pain that occurs while chewing or biting could mean that your tooth has been cracked or there is an issue deeper within the tooth. Loose fillings can also cause this type of pain. 

  • Puffy and painful red gums if the gums are red, painful, and under pressure it could be a sign of an abscessed tooth. The infection has moved beyond the tooth and is now affecting the surrounding soft tissues as well. 

  • A dull aching pain – many times this is caused by clenching or grinding of the teeth also called bruxism. The pressure applied through grinding can cause jaw soreness and soreness in the tooth as well.

Treatment for tooth pain

Depending on the cause of tooth pain, your dentist may do a number of things to get rid of it. If the issue is minor decay, like a cavity, a simple filling will suffice. However, if the decay is more extensive and goes into the pulp of the tooth then a root canal might be needed to fix the pain.

If the issue is related to periodontitis, or gum disease, starting a regime of flossing, brushing, and regular dental exams can help. Dentists will also likely do a deep clean, called scaling and planning, of your teeth to give your gums a fresh start.

For broken, chipped, or cracked teeth your clinician will attempt to first repair and seal the tooth. However, if the damage is extensive and beyond repair then the tooth will need to be removed. It can be replaced with a denture, or fake tooth.⁵

Tooth pain relief

There are a number of ways to treat minor pain at home. It is important to remember that if the pain is too much to handle or does not subside, you need to see a dentist. For temporary relief, consider one of the following: hold a cold compress against the outside of your cheek, rub clove oil over the sore areas of your teeth and gums, rinse your mouth with warm saltwater or try an over-the-counter pain reliever.⁶

When to see your dentist

It is important to see your dentist if pain is consistent and does not go away in a day or two. Dull pain that is persistent can often be a sign of something that will get worse if not treated. If you notice that a tooth is chipped, cracked, or broken, you should see a dentist as soon as possible. Cracks and chips are havens for bacteria and food which can cause decay.

Most other issues related to your teeth can be addressed at your regularly scheduled six-month appointment. Be sure to mention any pain or discomfort to your dentist at that time.⁷

Links to external sites are provided for your convenience in locating related information and services. Guardian, its subsidiaries, agents and employees expressly disclaim any responsibility for and do not maintain, control, recommend, or endorse third-party sites, organizations, products, or services and make no representation as to the completeness, suitability, or quality thereof.

Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment or medical advice. This is not dental care advice and should not be substituted for regular consultation with your dentist. If you have any concerns about your dental health, please contact your dentist's office.


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  5. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/10957-toothache/management-and-treatment, 2017

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