What Is a Toothache, Anyway?
Without boring you with wonky dentist terminology, we’ll fill you in (get it?) on what’s happening inside of your mouth when you have a toothache.
By Stephan McCormick
If you’ve never experienced the agony of a serious toothache, know that you would gladly sell your soul to Satan in order to make the pain stop. But whether or not you’ve experienced that misery, chances are you don’t have the slightest idea what a toothache is. Well, the cause of the unbearable pain can be a number of things — a broken tooth, an exposed nerve, the fact that you last brushed your teeth during the Clinton administration — so we asked Mo Taheri, prosthodontist and clinical instructor at Tufts University, to help you self-diagnose the next time you’re wondering, “Oh God, why does my tooth hurt?” while bravely fighting back tears.
Dr. Taheri tells us that when something is wrong with one of your teeth, toothy nerves send IMs to your brain being all “WTF, bro?” Your brain then translates that message into one of these three types of toothaches:
#1. The Annoying But (Temporarily) Tolerable Toothache
The pain is sharp and pointed, but you can deal with it. ”This is the most basic toothache, and it’s typically a response to a specific stimulus — cold, sweets, acidic foods, et cetera,” Taheri says. “It’s often called ‘reversible pulpitis’ and can sometimes be resolved by covering the exposed dentin or taking care of the decay.” So in a nuthsell, the dentist fills your cavity, tells you to floss more, and sends you off with your pearly yellows as good as new.
#2. The Pathetic Moaning In The Middle of the Night Toothache
“The next level of a toothache is one that arises spontaneously,” Taheri explains. The living connective tissue under the enamel in your tooth is degenerating, and the pain is extreme enough to “wake an individual in the middle of the night.” These often require a root canal to correct — but the good news is that root canals aren’t as painful as most people think. They’re also a far better option than allowing this type of toothache mature into …
#3. The Will-To-Live-Sapping, Shameful-Pain-Tears-Producing, Monumentally Sh*tty Toothache
A “hot tooth” is the product of prolonged neglect. (And probably also the name of a lousy indie band from Brooklyn.) Bacteria attacks the tooth’s nerve and causes an infection that basically makes you want to rip out all of your teeth — not just the infected one. “The pain will reach such a level and frequency that it will affect the interpretation center of the brain,” Taheri says. That might cause your healthy teeth (as well as other parts of you head) to throb. Even worse: Hot teeth are notoriously difficult to anesthetize. Worse case means you’re looking at extraction.