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Tooth Pain? Here Are Some Surprising Causes

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Here’s what to watch out for.

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It's easy to take your teeth for granted—that is, until a tooth starts sending shooting pain through your body and you realize you haven't been to the dentist in…well, definitely not the last six months. Oral health is crucial to your overall well-being, but one that’s easy to overlook when most of the time your jaw isn’t aching.

Cavities are probably the most well-known cause of mouth pain, but there are plenty of other reasons for teeth to hurt. While an OTC medication like Advil can help relieve the pain of a toothache, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your dentist or doctor, who can help you figure out if one of the following issues are the source of that pain:

You Clench or Grind Your Teeth

You may not even know it if you grind your teeth, the medical term for which is bruxism. But you might be aware of some of the symptoms. Maybe you’ve been getting headaches, or your jaw feels sore, or your teeth feel loose. If you’ve been grinding your teeth at night, your dentist may recommend fitting you for a mouth guard, which will protect your teeth while you sleep. If you’re more of a day-grinder because you’re grinding your teeth from stress, relaxation techniques like meditation, exercise, and speaking with a therapist can all help you learn healthy ways to cope.

You Have Dry Mouth

If you breathe through your mouth, are dehydrated, or have dry mouth as a side effect of taking medication, you might already have trouble talking or swallowing. But the consequences of dry mouth can go beyond that to tooth decay. You may not realize it, but your saliva plays a huge role in your oral health: it gets food particles off your teeth, neutralizes acids, helps protect against bacteria, and maintains the health of both soft and hard tissues in your mouth. Without it, you lose that protection against decay. Chewing sugarless gum or mints can help stimulate saliva, but for more persistent issues, talk to your dentist about treatment options.

You Have Stomach Issues

While the stomach and the mouth are intimately linked, you might not make an immediate connection between the stomach and teeth. If you often experience heartburn or acid reflux, the acids coming up from your stomach can erode your teeth, making your teeth more sensitive. The erosion can lead to discoloration, or in extreme cases, abscesses or tooth loss. If you're worried about the possible dental side effects of any GI issues you may have, speak to your dentist about developing a plan that works for you. You may also want to consult a physician about your GI issues to treat the underlying causes.

You Use a Hard Toothbrush

Have you ever found yourself staring at all the toothbrushes at the store without any clue which one is the right one to get? If your dentist hasn't already told you: Get the soft-bristled variety. Anything above soft (hard and even medium) can damage your enamel and your gums. Apply just enough pressure to dislodge food particles and get the film off. You don't have to scrub vigorously!

You Work Out a Lot

Research shows that elite athletes generally have poor oral health. You might not be heading to the Olympics, but the takeaways might still be useful if you’re training for a race or hit the gym often. Studies have shown that elite athletes widely deal with tooth decay, periodontal disease, tooth erosion, and impacted wisdom teeth. Part of it has to do with nutrition: Athletes commonly consume sugary or acidic sports drinks and gels. Athletes' physical activity can also lead to a drying of the mouth and subsequently increase the impact that the carbs from sports drinks have. For non-elite athletes, all that breathing through the mouth and those sugar sports drinks during a workout could still impact your oral health. Remember to stay hydrated with lots of water, and look for drinks that replace electrolytes without so much sugar.

You Brush Your Teeth Right After You Eat

Immediately after a meal, it can be tempting to head straight for the bathroom and brush your teeth. While that's nice for your friends and family, your teeth need time after eating, especially if you’ve been enjoying something acidic (like, say, a lemony cake). To be more precise, you should wait 60 minutes. Your mouth needs this time for your saliva to wash away the acids from the food you've eaten. You can rinse your mouth with water in the meantime. After that hour, it's safe to brush.

You Use Your Teeth to Open Things

When you can't open a bag with your hands, it’s so easy to try to rip it open with your teeth. And the plastic on price tags? There's something satisfying about gnawing on them to break them. Who even knows where the scissors are in the junk drawer, right? Turns out, being cavalier about using teeth to open stuff can lead to cracks in your tooth enamel or possibly even a jaw injury. Your teeth are treasures, not tools!