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What is a toothache?

A toothache is pain that occurs in or around a tooth. The pain usually comes from within a tooth or the surrounding gum and bone structures. The toothache can be constant or intermittent, and arise spontaneously or from stimuli. It's hard to ignore a bothersome aching tooth while eating or going about your day. While a toothache is bothersome, it is a way for the offending tooth or area to make you aware that it needs some attention and care.

What causes a toothache?

Toothaches are usually caused by trauma or injury. A traumatic blow to a tooth can induce sensitivity. Injury can be in the form of dental decay (or "cavity"). A cavity is usually felt when it gets larger and deeper into the layers of tooth structure. The hard outer layer of tooth is called enamel and the softer layer beneath enamel is called dentin. Dentin is sensitive with tiny microscopic tubes that run from the very center of the tooth. The center of the tooth is called the pulp chamber and contains the pulp. The pulp is comprised of blood vessels and nerves. If decay gets past enamel into the dentin, the cavity can sometimes cause discomfort. A deeper cavity that approaches the center of the tooth will likely cause pain since there is more damage to the tooth and there is less tooth structure to insulate and protect the pulp.

Other causes of toothache include:

  1. Abscessed tooth: This is an infection that originates from within the tooth to the root and the surrounding bone.
  2. Damaged or fractured tooth: Fracture of a tooth can expose the sensitive dentin or even the pulp. Sometimes fractures are not obvious even though the fracture line can run deep into the tooth causing pain every time one bites or chews with it. This is called "cracked tooth syndrome."
  3. Dental work: After a deep or large filling or crown is done, the tooth can feel more sensitive. Dental work, although necessary, can sometimes irritate the nerve. Over time, the sensitivity can resolve if the tooth is healthy enough.
  4. Teeth clenching or grinding: This habit is called “bruxism” and is oftentimes done unconsciously. Unfortunately, bruxism causes damage to teeth and sometimes irritates the nerves to the point where teeth are sensitive.
  5. Gum infection or gum disease: The gum, gum ligament, and bone that surround and anchor the teeth are called the "periodontium." Pain is usually felt during the later stages of gum disease (or "periodontitis") where there is advanced loss of bone that surrounds the teeth. Because of bone loss, a gum abscess (infection) can form in the space that develops between the tooth and the gum.
  6. Exposed root surfaces: When the roots of teeth are no longer covered with the protective bone and gum, these surfaces can be sensitive to stimuli such as brushing the teeth or temperature changes.
  7. Sinusitis: Because the roots of the upper molars are very close to the maxillary sinus cavities, inflammation from the sinus cavities can cause these molars to feel sensitive and feel like a toothache.
  8. Third molars ("wisdom teeth"): Third molars are the very last permanent teeth in our mouths to erupt. More often than not, there is not enough space for these molars in the mouth. As a result, third molars become fully or partially trapped (impacted) within the jawbone and below the gum. Because of poor access, it is difficult to properly clean partially exposed third molars; therefore, the area is vulnerable to problems. Problems with third molars can cause dull to severe pain from pressure of eruption, infection, or dental decay.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/1/2013

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What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Cavities?

When a cavity advances deep into the tooth, it may produce increased sensitivity to foods that are cold, hot, or sweet. But not all cavities will cause a toothache. If they are small or progressing slowly, they may only be detected by a dentist before they cause pain.