You have a toothache… or do you? That's not a facetious question — sometimes it's difficult to determine if it's your tooth that hurts, your gums or both. It's even difficult at times to pinpoint which tooth may be hurting.
This is because the pain can originate from a variety of causes. Determining the cause is the first step to not only alleviating the pain, but also treating the underlying condition. Those causes generally follow one of two paths: either the problem originates within a tooth and spreads to the gums and other tissue, or it begins with infected gum tissues and can spread to the teeth.
We refer to the first path as endodontic, meaning it originates from within a tooth. Most likely the tooth has decayed (also referred to as a cavity), which if untreated can progress, allowing bacteria to infect the tooth pulp (living tissue inside the tooth that contains nerve fibers). Pain results as the nerves become inflamed and sensitive, though often varying in quality (sharp or dull) or frequency (constant or intermittent); outside stimuli, like temperature or pressure, may also trigger pain.
Although likely originating with one tooth, it may be difficult to pinpoint which one is actually causing it; you might even feel pain in your sinus cavity radiating upward from the tooth. An untreated infection will continue to spread to surrounding soft tissue, or result in a painful abscess, an infected pocket of bacteria between the tooth and gums.
The other path is periodontal, meaning the infection originates in the gum tissues. A thin layer of dental plaque known as biofilm develops and sticks to teeth at the gum line, which can lead to infection of the gum tissue, which then becomes inflamed and painfully sensitive. The untreated infection can then progress along the tooth and invade the pulp through the accessory root canals.
Knowing the source of an ache will determine the best course of treatment, whether a root canal, root planing, or a combination of these or other procedures. It's also the best, most efficient way to relieve you of that unpleasant mouth pain.
If you would like more information on the various causes of tooth pain, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Confusing Tooth Pain.”