How Tooth Decay Can Cause Referred Pain and How It Can Be Treated

Suffering from a toothache is never a pleasant experience, but, in most cases, it is one that can be solved relatively easily by your dentist by repairing or extracting the offending tooth. However, in some cases, a damaged tooth can cause pain not only in the tooth itself but also in other teeth or other parts of the face entirely. This phenomenon is well-known by dentists and is called 'referred pain'.

What is referred pain?

Sensations of touch and pain in the teeth are controlled by the trigeminal nerve, a large nerve cluster which connects all of your teeth to the same relay of nerve cells. When one end of this nerve cluster becomes irritated by a damaged or decayed tooth, the other branches of this nerve cluster can also be affected, provoking sensations of pain in areas of your face that are in perfect health.

In many cases, this nervous confusion causes no pain to be felt in the tooth which is actually damaged, while pain in concentrated in other, undamaged teeth in our mouth. However, this pain can also occur in other areas, such as your cheeks, jaw muscles and even your ears and neck. This can make diagnosing the source of pain in your mouth and face challenging, and you should call upon a dentist as soon as possible to ascertain the actual cause of your pain.

How can my dentist relieve referred pain?

Although referred pain can cause the sensation of pain to spread to many disparate areas of your face, this does not mean that the damage causing it has also spread. Consequently, removing the source of the pain will, in most cases, eliminate any and all instances of referred pain you are experiencing.

To test which of your teeth is causing this referred pain, your dentist will run a number of simple, non-invasive tests. In many cases, simply tapping the tooth generating the referred pain will cause the pain to concentrate on the damaged tooth, allowing it to be easily identified and treated. If this is ineffectual, X-ray scans and bite analysis can be used. Your dentist can also use sensations of hot and cold to deliberately amplify the pain. This intense pain is very transient, and will only occur once your dentist applies heat or cold to the damaged tooth.

Once the offending tooth has been identified, it can be numbed so repair work or extraction can begin. Most patients suffering from referred pain will find that all the painful sensations they feel are numbed once the tooth itself is numbed, providing confirmation that the tooth is the source of the pain. However, if the pain persists, you should inform your dentist immediately, as persistent referred pain can point to a number of more serious health problems, such as sinus infections and even heart problems.