Tooth pain and throbbing can be stopped -- although it's not always a quick fix, depending on the underlying cause. Common culprits responsible for tooth pain or throbbing include root sensitivity, cavities, trauma, gum disease and referred pain from sinus problems. Specific signs and symptoms associated with these conditions help determine the cause of your discomfort. Your dentist will typically ask a series of questions, perform some tests and evaluate x-rays to pinpoint the cause of your pain and the best treatment options.
Cavities and Trauma
A small cavity sometimes causes sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures and sweet foods. This sensitivity can trigger pain or throbbing in the affected tooth, which usually comes and goes. Filling the cavity usually resolves the pain. A large cavity or a powerful blow to the mouth can damage the nerve inside a tooth. Pain associated with nerve damage is typically more constant and severe, and may be more throbbing in nature. Common signs of nerve damage include tooth pain when biting, chewing, or drinking something hot or cold. Swelling of the face or gums might also occur.
Dentists check for nerve damage within a tooth by performing tests, such as tapping on the tooth, applying pressure to the tooth, temperature testing and x-ray examination. If the tooth is infected, the dentist may prescribe an antibiotic and a painkiller for short-term pain relief. Long-term pain relief requires a root canal or pulling the tooth.
Teeth with partially exposed root surfaces are usually sensitive to some combination of touch, cold air, acidic foods, sweet foods, and hot or cold foods or beverages. The root surface contains microscopic pores that allow sensations to reach the nerve inside the tooth, triggering pain. Desensitizing toothpaste often helps with this type of sensitivity by blocking these pores to prevent the transmission of sensation from the tooth surface to the nerve. It may take 2 to 3 weeks of using the toothpaste before tooth sensitivity decreases.
Some toothpastes are more abrasive than others and may cause your teeth to be more sensitive. Toothpastes labeled as whitening, brightening or tartar control might be abrasive. Ask your dentist to recommend a toothpaste that's best for you.
Gum disease, also known as periodontal disease, can lead to loose teeth, swollen red gums, tooth pain and sensitivity to pressure. If the gum disease is not too advanced, a cleaning and ongoing preventive dental care may be sufficient to alleviate the tooth pain. More extensive treatment, such as deep cleaning and possibly antibiotics, may be needed for more advanced periodontal disease. Gum and/or bone surgery might be recommended for severe periodontal disease.
It's not unusual for people with sinus problems to experience pain or throbbing in the upper teeth. This occurs because the walls of some sinuses and the roots of the upper teeth are very close to one another, so sinus inflammation can trigger tooth pain. This cause of tooth pain is sometimes hard to diagnose. If your dentist has performed a thorough examination and ruled out a dental cause for your tooth pain, it's best to see your medical doctor to check for a sinus problem or another condition that can refer pain to the teeth.
Warnings and Precautions
Many people are not fond of going to the dentist. But it's important not to ignore tooth pain, even it's relatively minor or comes and goes. Dental problems that cause tooth pain usually develop gradually, so consider tooth discomfort an early warning sign. Treatment is usually simpler -- and less costly -- if you catch a dental problem before it gets too advanced. While over-the-counter, tooth-numbing medicines might bring temporary relief, make an appointment to see your dentist if you experience tooth pain. Contact your dentist right away if your tooth pain began with a blow to your mouth, or if your pain is accompanied by a fever, swelling or tenderness of your face, or pus draining from around a tooth.
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.