What a Pain in the Tooth: How to Diagnose Your Toothache

 Do you have persistent pain in your tooth? Does it hurt to chew? Use this handy guide to the most common types of dental pain to find out how to solve your toothache.

There are few things as uniquely frustrating as a persistent toothache. When it strikes, it’s often very difficult to ignore. Since you eat, drink, and talk with your mouth, even a small pain in the tooth can affect your life.

There is only one thing you can do if you have a toothache: go to the dentist. They’re the only ones qualified to diagnose what the actual problem is.

Taking painkillers for a toothache may stop the pain temporarily, but it’s a weak fix at best. You need to treat the underlying issue that’s causing the pain fast.

With proper oral hygiene and a regular dental cleaning routine you should be able to avoid most kinds of toothaches. But, if you’re experiencing a pain in the tooth, it’s useful to understand what it could mean. 

Here’s how you can self-diagnose your tooth pain to explain to your dentist what you’re feeling.

6 Kinds of Common Dental Pain

There are many different types of tooth pain. Some tooth pain comes and goes in waves, other types are persistent. Understanding what you’re feeling won’t just help you self-diagnose. It can also help you explain to the dentist, so they can find the best treatment for you.

1. Tooth Pain That Comes and Goes in Waves

This is a tooth pain that is less of an ache and more of an irregular jabbing or stabbing sensation within one or several teeth. Usually, you’ll feel this when you move your mouth. 

Chewing, talking, and opening your mouth can trigger this kind of tooth pain. This is a kind of tooth pain that comes and goes, but it’s very painful when it makes an appearance. And the reason you’re feeling intermittent tooth pain could be a crack, cavity, or abscess.

2. Sharp Tooth Sensitivity to Temperature

The sensation with tooth sensitivity will be similar to the intermittent jabbing pain. However, this one is tied to temperature. You can feel this when you’re eating ice cream or hot soup. In extreme cases even cold air can trigger this tooth pain.

As with stabbing pain, it could be a product of a cavity or an abscess, but it may also be caused by rough brushing or gum recession. Enamel hypoplasia could also be behind tooth sensitivity to temperature.

types of tooth ache

3. Dull Nagging Toothache

This is the most common type of toothache. Although it’s usually quite mild, its persistence and deep, dull sensation can make it a tough problem to deal with. A lot of people take over-the-counter painkillers for this type of toothache, but that’s only a temporary solution and not a treatment.

Common culprits behind a dull and nagging toothache are nerve damage or tooth decay. If you’re experiencing this type of pain, consult a dentist immediately as both of these are serious dental issues.

4. Extreme Throbbing Pain

If you are suffering from an extremely painful tooth, you should see a dentist as soon as you can. Especially if your face has also swollen. A swollen face means that you developed a tooth infection or abscess. And the dentist must treat that right away.

5. Pain Only When Eating

Some people get a toothache only when they’re eating. If chewing and moving your mouth causes you pain, it may be caused by tooth decay or dental fracture. Both of these require a trip to the dentist as soon as possible.

6. Pain at the Back of the Jaw

This type of pain is not as common as the rest. Usually, you can thank an impacted wisdom tooth for this type of dental pain. And you need to get it examined.

Wisdom teeth have a tendency to grow in unusual directions that can hurt your jaw, and even the alignment of your teeth. Leaving them in can cause permanent damage, so it’s best to consult a dentist about their extraction.

What to Do If You Have a Toothache

Go to the dentist. This is your best chance to find a lasting solution to your toothache.

Generally speaking, if your toothache is intermittent and seems to come and go, you can probably get away with not rushing out immediately for a dental exam. 

However, you must schedule an appointment for some time in the near future. On the other hand, if you have persistent and intense pain, you really do need to get to the dentist urgently.

What Happens When You Go to the Dentist with Tooth Pain

At your dental appointment, the specialist will use one or several techniques to diagnose the problem. These are the most common tests you should expect that will help the dentist diagnose your problem:

  • X-ray: Your dentist may wish to take an x-ray of your teeth to check for abscesses, cavities, and other hidden problems. This is not a very invasive procedure and should only take a few minutes to perform.
  • Visual examination: If the problem is obvious, the dentist can tell what the problem is right away, just by looking into your mouth.
  • Percussion test: A basic percussion test can identify the most vulnerable areas of the mouth. This is as simple as it sounds; the dentist taps lightly on different teeth with their finger or a special tool.
  • Biting pressure test: You’ll have to bite down on a stick or applicator and then describe where the pain occurs more intensely.
  • Cold air test: The dentist will blow a soft stream of cold air on your teeth to identify areas of unhealthy sensitivity and vulnerability.

7 Common Reasons Behind a Toothache

1. Tooth Decay

Tooth decay is just another word for a cavity. Cavities form when you allow plaque (bacteria) to eat your enamel away. It’s a permanent damage to the outer layer of your tooth, so a dentist is the only one that can fix it.

The more the cavity spreads, the more painful it can become. As it eats into the dentin (middle layer) towards your nerves, the pain can be excruciating.

It’s easy to identify tooth pain caused by tooth decay and cavities. Ask yourself if the pain is always the same or does it change in intensity throughout the day? 

With tooth decay, the pain is often worse in the morning, and gets a little better towards the evening. However, it can flare up when you eat hard foods.

2. Inflammation of the Pulp

This condition is commonly referred to as ‘pulpitis.’ It occurs when the tissue in the middle of a tooth becomes irritated and inflamed. This irritation leads to an accumulation of pressure inside the tooth and puts a strain on the gums and surrounding tissue. The treatment for pulpitis is usually a root canal procedure. It is important to get the condition treated quickly because the tooth pain can become severe fast.

3. Cracks and Fractures

Biting down hard on a tough object can cause cracks and fractures in your teeth. Sometimes, you can’t even see these cracks. You’ll only feel the pain. Eating ice, popcorn, or hard candy can definitely increase the risk of this.

The pain you feel with a cracked tooth can range from dull pain to temperature sensitivity. A dentist can recommend a suitable treatment to your broken tooth.

4. Impacted Wisdom Teeth

A tooth can become impacted if it’s restricted in its natural movement. And wisdom teeth are notorious for becoming impacted.

As they develop much later than the rest of the adult teeth, their attempts to align with the other molars aren’t straightforward. In cases where there is no room for the wisdom teeth, they remain trapped beneath the gum and this can lead to pain and soreness.

5. Gum Disease

Gum disease is a very serious dental problem. It’s an infection of the gum tissue that surrounds and secures your teeth.

This infection can cause the gums to lose their grip on the teeth and recede, which results in gaps and pockets. These pockets then fill with bacteria and leave the tooth roots vulnerable to decay.

If left untreated, gum disease can lead to persistent tooth loss and total degeneration of the gums. In a worst case scenario, it can even lead to heart disease.

6. Sensitive Teeth

Sometimes, tooth pain is simply a result of genetics. Some people have sensitive teeth. If there are no signs of infection or decay, but the teeth are still sensitive to changes in temperature and cold air, this may be the problem. 

As this is not actually a dental condition at all, you don’t need treatment for this. As long as the teeth are structurally healthy, of course. Specially designed toothpaste can help control the degree of dental vulnerability.

7. Other Causes

Occasionally, pain in your tooth isn’t a dental problem at all. A lot of people don’t know that a problem in other parts of your body can also trigger a toothache. Particularly in your nose, ears, and sinuses. Sinus infection or congestion can easily affect the upper row teeth.


The Carefree Dental blog is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The text and pictures within the content are intended for information purposes only. Readers should consult with a licensed dentist or healthcare professional before seeking treatment.

The Carefree Dental Card is not insurance and Carefree Dental is not an insurance provider.

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