The Cause Behind Toothaches and When to Seek Treatment

Most of us have experienced some form of toothache in our lives. And whether your pain is mildly annoying or highly painful, you want to fix the issue quickly. Learn more about your tooth pain, potential causes, and when you should consider seeing your dentist. 

Tooth pain is caused when the nerve in the root of the tooth or surrounding the tooth is irritated. The most common causes are infection, decay, injury, or loss of a tooth.  

The pulp of the tooth, or the central portion which contains nerve endings that are sensitive to pain, can become inflamed due to dental cavities, trauma, or infection. The first step in getting toothache relief is pinpointing what is wrong. 

Sensitive Teeth

The hard layer of enamel which covers healthy teeth and protects the nerves can wear away over time. This leaves the middle layer of the tooth exposed, allowing anything you drink or eat to reach your nerve endings. Consuming anything hot or cold can often cause this sensitivity to spark.  

Gum disease can also cause teeth to become sensitive. This happens when the gums shrink away from the teeth, exposing the roots. An old filling that has become damaged or loose can also create a sensitive area. 

Using teeth bleaching products, whitening strips, or gels can also cause tooth sensitivity. This pain is typically temporary and stops after you stop using the whitening product. 

A Damaged Tooth/Cavities

Bacteria growing within the mouth, until it is brushed away, produces acid which can cause decay and make holes in your teeth, otherwise known as cavities. You can also get a damaged or cracked tooth while playing a sport or biting into something hard. 

Both cavities and cracks can cause a dull ache or a sharp pain when biting down. The longer you let this pain go on, the more serious damage could become. If bacteria is let into the pulp of the tooth, it can cause an abscess and become infected, possibly spreading to tissue and bone. It is important to have these things filled or fixed in a timely manner. 

Past fillings and crowns may also become damaged, needing to be repaired or replaced to stop any pain.

Wisdom Teeth

We know the pains of teething for children, but this process can also be sensitive as an adult when wisdom teeth start to push through the gums. It is also possible for food to get stuck under the gum, causing decay and infection. 

Wisdom teeth can also become impacted, which happens when they are prevented from moving to their proper position by the other teeth, bone, or gums. This often happens since they are the last teeth to erupt and our jawbones are often not able to accommodate these extra teeth. This causes them to remain under the gum, creating pain and pressure. 

Teeth Grinding

People often grind their teeth due to a sleep disorder, stress, or a bite issue. Grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw can wear away enamel or cause a crack and should be addressed with your dentist for treatment options. 

Pain can sometimes originate from other areas and radiate in the jaw, making it seem like tooth pain. Common areas for this include the jaw joint (resulting in temporomandibular joint disorder), sinuses, or ear pain. 

Symptoms and When to See Your Dentist

Whatever the cause of a toothache may be, there are many different symptoms you may be experiencing. Some of these symptoms include: 

  • Sensitivity to heat or cold
  • Sensitivity to acidic or sweet foods
  • Pain when chewing
  • Bleeding or swelling around the teeth or gums
  • Headache
  • Bad breath or foul taste in the mouth

If a tooth appears normal but you are experiencing symptoms, it could be cause to call your dentist to examine the issue. Putting a dental visit off could result in symptoms and the reason behind them to get worse in the long run. You should seek dental care if: 

  • Pain worsens, does not go away in one to two days, or is not relieved by over-the-counter drugs
  • You experience swelling of the gums or face
  • Fever occurs
  • You receive a broken or fully knocked-out tooth due to injury
  • There is severe pain after a tooth is pulled
  • There is pain caused by wisdom teeth

When seeing your dentist for tooth pain, we will often look at your medical history as it relates to your dental health and do a thorough oral exam to determine a diagnosis. X-rays may also be taken to see what is happening underneath the surface. After a diagnosis is made, we will be able to start any treatment or pain management that is necessary. Often this could mean filling a cavity, performing a root canal, or prescribing an antibiotic. 


The majority of dental issues can be prevented by simply brushing with fluoride toothpaste, flossing, and having your teeth professionally cleaned by your dentist twice a year. Sealants and fluoride may also be applied by your dentist to prevent dental problems leading to tooth pain. 

Maintaining a healthy diet and being extra careful about foods that stick to your teeth can also benefit your oral health over time. Refraining from smoking can also be beneficial, as tobacco can make some dental conditions worse. 

Wearing protective headgear or a dental guard while participating in sports is another way to help in preventing mouth injuries. 

If you are experiencing tooth pain or have any concerns regarding your dental health and care, please reach out to our office at 218-728-5095 to schedule an appointment.