You’re drinking a hot coffee, brushing your teeth or maybe even just smiling, and tooth nerve pain strikes. A sharp, stabbing pain or ache radiates from your teeth for a few seconds, then it’s gone—until the next time. Though a few moments of tooth sensitivity don’t usually indicate a dental emergency, you should see a dentist to find out the cause. In the meantime, you can help prevent and treat tooth nerve pain at home.
What Causes Tooth Pain?
Your teeth contain nerves, and when they lose their protective coating they become sensitive to hot, cold and sugary foods and drinks, brushing and even movement. Anything that breaks or wears away tooth enamel and exposes the soft tissue beneath (dentin) can cause tooth pain. Here are some common causes:
- Cracked teeth: If there’s no obvious sign of dental decay or gum disease, but you are still experiencing intermittent pain, you may have a cracked tooth. Sugar can leak under the tooth enamel and cause spontaneous pain. Cracks also allow temperature changes in the mouth to reach the nerve. Only a dental restoration can fix a cracked tooth. According to MIT Medical, a cracked tooth may not be visible to the eye and may not show up on an X-ray, but your dentist will be able to see it when he removes the tooth surface to restore the tooth.
- Gum disease: Receding, inflamed and sore gums are painful in themselves, and they allow sugar and hot and cold foods and drinks to affect tooth nerves.
- Smoking: Smoking damages tooth enamel and gums, which can cause tooth sensitivity.
- Aggressive brushing: As the American Dental Association (ADA) explains, brushing with a hard-bristled brush, brushing aggressively and brushing incorrectly damages the gums and exposes tooth roots.
- Grinding: Also called bruxism, tooth grinding is an involuntary habit. Sufferers rub their lower teeth against their upper teeth at night or sometimes during the day and are often unaware of what they’re doing. Over time, grinding wears away the enamel where the teeth meet.
To prevent tooth nerve pain, avoid foods and habits that may damage your tooth enamel. When you brush your teeth, be gentle, use a soft-bristled toothbrush and be sure to floss. If you are prone to sensitive teeth, the Mayo Clinic recommends limiting your intake of acidic foods and drinks, including citrus juices, sodas, wine and yogurt, which can wear away your tooth enamel. If you grind your teeth, talk to your dentist about using a mouth guard.
You can reduce tooth nerve pain by using desensitizing toothpaste, brushing with a soft-bristled brush twice a day and rinsing with a fluoride mouthwash once a day. If you find that brushing with a toothpaste for sensitive teeth doesn’t provide immediate relief, don’t despair. According to the ADA, it usually takes several applications to reduce sensitivity.
You can also reduce tooth pain attacks by improving your diet. Stick to sugar-free dairy, grains, fruit and vegetables and lean meats. Don’t chew ice, which can cause tooth fractures, and avoid snacking on sticky or sweet foods. Eating aged cheeses such as Swiss, Parmesan and cheddar may help protect your teeth from sensitivity-causing decay by increasing saliva flow.
Tooth nerve pain is unlikely to go away completely by itself. For long-term relief, make a dental appointment and discuss your symptoms with your dentist. To treat a cracked tooth he can apply a crown—unless the crack is complex, in which case you may need root canal therapy. Other treatments for tooth sensitivity include fluoride gel or prescription desensitizing agents, dental fillings, bondings or inlays, depending on what’s causing the sensitivity. If your gums have receded, your dentist may suggest a gum graft.
Don’t let sharp pains or aches from your teeth spoil your day. Try to reduce your symptoms at home, and, if you find you are still in significant pain, see your dentist. She will be able to treat the root cause and reduce your chances of experiencing another attack.