"For there was never yet philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently." Shakespeare was right. The toothache isn't easy to endure. The good news: With improved dental care and regular checkups, the excruciating pain of a toothache is not as common as it once was. But when pain does occur in the mouth, it's an important signal that you should not ignore -- even if it goes away on its own.
Tooth pain is varied. Perhaps most common is the minor pain caused by sensitive teeth. You eat or drink something hot, cold, or sweet and feel a momentary twinge. Some people suffer achy teeth because of sinus problems; that's probably the case if you notice that the pain is limited to your upper teeth and that several teeth are affected at one time.
Bruxism (or teeth grinding) or a problem with your temporomandibular joint may be the cause of toothaches or sensitivity. And, recent dental work can cause a tooth to be sensitive to temperature changes for a few weeks.
Some types of pain deserve immediate attention from your dentist, however. If you feel a sharp pain when you bite down, for instance, you may have a cavity, a loose filling, a cracked tooth, or damaged pulp (that's the inner core of the tooth that contains the blood vessels and nerves). Pain that sticks around for more than 30 minutes after eating hot or cold foods can also indicate pulp damage, either from a deep cavity or a blow to the tooth. And the stereotypical toothache with constant and severe pain, swelling, and sensitivity is definitely a sign of trouble.
As a rule of thumb, if a tooth hurts enough to wake you up at night or interferes with your ability to function normally during the day, it's time to dial up the dentist. You could have an abscessed tooth; that means the pulp of the tooth has died, resulting in an infection that can spread to the gum and even to the bone.
Pain associated with the pulp of the tooth is kind of tricky. It can let you know that damage has occurred. But nerves in the pulp can die rapidly -- in as little as 12 hours, after which the pain fades. However, soon the tooth hurts again as the dead tissue becomes infected, or abscessed.
That's why putting off dental attention for a toothache can mean bad news. But if it's 3:00 in the morning or the middle of Sunday afternoon, you can take the temporary measures that follow to deal with the pain until you can get to the dentist's office.
Take two aspirin...or acetaminophen or ibuprofen -- the same over-the-counter pills you take for everyday aches and pains. Ibuprofen may be the best choice, since it relieves the inflammation that may accompany a toothache. See this list of precautions to take when using over-the-counter analgesics.
For a more natural approach, see pain-relieving remedies on the next page.
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Natural Toothache Remedies
Apply oil of cloves. You can pick this up at the pharmacy. Follow the directions for use carefully (because ingesting too much can lead to poisoning), and be sure to put it only on the tooth and NOT on the gum. Otherwise, your burning gums
may distract you from your toothache. And remember, oil of cloves won't cure the toothache; it just temporarily numbs the nerve.
Cool the swelling. Put a cold compress on the outside of your cheek if you've got swelling from the toothache.
Chill the pain. Holding an ice cube or cold water in the
mouth may relieve the pain. But if you find that it simply aggravates your sensitive tooth, skip it.
Keep your head up. Elevating your head can decrease the pressure in the area and may lessen throbbing pain.
Rinse. You can't really rinse away the pain (although it's a pleasant thought), but you can rinse with warm water to remove any food debris that may be causing or aggravating the pain. A piece of food that gets stuck in the gum can hurt as much as damaged tooth pulp. Stir one teaspoon salt in a glass of warm water, swish it around in your mouth, then spit it out.
Floss. No, it's not a cure, but flossing is another way to remove any food debris that could be trapped. The rubber tip on your toothbrush or a toothpick (if used with caution) can help dislodge stuck food, too.
Be careful with the hot, the cold, and the sweet. These foods and beverages may aggravate an already sore and sensitive situation.
Plug it with gauze or gum. If the tooth feels sensitive to air, cover it with a piece of gauze, a small piece of dental wax (available at many pharmacies), or a bit of chewed sugarless chewing gum (use the teeth on the opposite side of the mouth to chew the gum) until you can get to the dentist.
Don't fall for these myths -- you could end up causing more damage by believing in them:
- Put an aspirin on the tooth. If you want to use aspirin to help relieve the pain of a toothache, swallow it with a glass of water. Do not place it on the tooth or surrounding gum. An aspirin tablet does not work as a topical remedy; it has to be ingested. What's worse, applying an aspirin topically can cause a severe burn on your gum or cheek that can take four to five days to heal.
- A toothache means you'll lose the tooth. Not so anymore. Root-canal therapy can save an abscessed tooth or one with damaged pulp. Root-canal therapy involves making a small opening in the tooth, removing the pulp in the root canal (that's where the name of the procedure comes from), filling the canal with a material called gutta percha, and then, usually, crowning the tooth. Sometimes, tiny metal posts are placed in the canal to help strengthen the tooth.
- If the pain disappears, the problem's gone. Pain is a warning that something has gone wrong in your body, so don't ignore it. And the problem may be more serious than a dental woe; pain in the lower jaw, for instance, can be a symptom of heart trouble.
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