Whether it’s a sharp jab out of the blue or a nagging ache that lasts for days, tooth pain can be distressing. It’s also difficult to see what might be going on with your teeth, but too often people put off checking with a professional about their oral health in case it’s bad news.

That’s a mistake, said New York dentist Edward Alvarez, DDS. ”Pain is your body telling you something is wrong, something is damaged,” he said. “It should never be ignored.”

Letting pain go on too long can cause problems that are harder to fix down the road. Here are three types of tooth pain you should watch out for, and what they might mean.

Sneaky Tooth Pain: Sensitivity

Tooth pain includes sensitivity that can come on without warning, most often when you eat or drink something hot or cold, or even when you breathe cold air through your mouth. Depending on where the sensitivity is, it could indicate that a tooth’s root is exposed from vigorous brushing, or that you have some decay. However, sometimes teeth simply become sensitive to hot, cold or sweet items without the presence of cavities, Alvarez said. A dentist can tell you whether there’s damage to the tooth or it’s just sensitive; the former may require some dental work, but if it’s the latter, using a toothpaste specially formulated for sensitive teeth can help.

Sharp or Stabbing Tooth Pain

This kind of pain can indicate damage to the tooth, such as decay, a missing filling or infection. “If you have pain or discomfort that lasts longer than a few seconds, and tends to linger for a minute or more, that can be indicative of the nerve dying inside the tooth and a need for root canal,” Alvarez said. Because of the wide variety of possibilities with this pain, you should visit a dentist as soon as possible.

Dull, Aching Tooth Pain

Infection or tooth-grinding are often to blame for this kind of pain. “If you have pain from a swelling above or next to a tooth then that is usually coming from an infection,” Alvarez said. “Treating an infection quickly is key to preventing it from possibly spreading to your brain or the rest of your body, as well as preventing bone or tooth loss.”

“Any time you have pain when you chew, throbbing, swelling or bleeding, you should see your dentist.” —Edward Alvarez, DDS

Pain in multiple teeth as well as your jaw could indicate that you grind your teeth at night, a condition called bruxism. “Clenching and grinding can lead to abfractions, microfractures of enamel, which look like little divots at the gum line,” Alvarez said. “These abfractions lead to tooth sensitivity, but are not cavities.” A toothpaste for sensitive teeth can help. Also, talk to your dentist about getting a custom mouth guard to curtail the damage bruxism does to your teeth and jaw.

No one likes to get dental work done, but there’s a lot at stake when you feel pain in your teeth. “Any time you have pain when you chew, throbbing, swelling or bleeding, you should see your dentist,” Alvarez said.


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