Some people think that pain is a reliable guide for when it’s time to see the dentist. They think that if their teeth and gums aren’t hurting, there can’t be anything wrong, or nothing serious, anyway.
But there are actually many reasons why pain isn’t a reliable indicator of your oral health.
Some Conditions Won’t Cause Pain
Many serious dental conditions won’t cause pain. Gum disease won’t normally cause pain, although it’s probably the most important oral health condition you will face. Gum disease is linked with heart disease, stroke, cancer, pregnancy complications, and diabetes, but it doesn’t always hurt. Your gums will swell. They will turn red. They may bleed and they may recede, but they don’t always hurt.
An infected tooth, which is normally treated with root canal therapy, is notoriously painful–sometimes. Other times, this condition, which threatens your teeth, your jawbones, and even potentially your life, may not cause any pain. That’s because pressure is the primary cause of pain in your teeth, but if the tooth is draining regularly, your tooth won’t be experiencing pressure. No pressure, no pain, even though you have a dangerous infection in your tooth.
Sometimes the Pain Is Far from the Cause
But you might be getting plenty of pain associated with a dental problem, it’s just far from the source of the pain. This is notorious with temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ). The pain from your TMJ can be felt as face pain, headaches, neck pain, ear pain,or back pain. It might even be felt as something other than pain, like ringing in the ears or dizziness.
When an infection has killed the nerves in your tooth, your tooth might not hurt. You might feel the pain from someplace else, somewhere further along the nerve that connects to the tooth.
Or you might experience a phenomenon known as referred pain. In this phenomenon, your brain makes a wrong “guess” about where the pain is coming from. As a result, you might think that you have a headache, but what you’re really experiencing is a toothache.
And this can go the other way–you might think you have a toothache, but the cause is something else entirely. The point is, you can’t trust pain to tell you where the problem is.
The Pain May Come Too Late
And many conditions that do cause pain can cause pain too late. By the time it hurts, your options are limited.
The most common pain associated with gum disease actually occurs when your tooth roots become exposed and you start getting sensitive to hot and cold liquids. By the time you feel this pain, your body has lost gum tissue and bone around your teeth. Your teeth may be starting to get loose. Gum disease is a lot harder to treat at this stage–your gums and bone may never grow back.
Minor cavities won’t cause you any pain. By the time a cavity is causing you pain, it is either an infected tooth, or the tooth may have suffered serious structural damage. Instead of a small filling, you might be looking at a dental crown, a root canal procedure, or extraction of the tooth and replacement with a dental implant.
Responsive Dentistry Is Damaging
When you get it into your head that dentistry is about reacting to things like pain, then you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage when it comes to protecting your oral health. By the time pain starts telling you something’s wrong, it may be too late to preserve a tooth, your gums, or your health without major invasive procedures. You end up spending more to try to restore your smile, and you end up with a smile that is visibly unhealthy most of the time.
Proactive dentistry, on the other hand, allows us to intervene before problems become too severe. You may still need restorative dentistry, but it won’t be as invasive and it won’t be as expensive. And you’ll keep your smile healthy and beautiful.