You know the drill: Most of the time you tend to ignore aches and pains in your mouth, putting off dentist visits unless something visibly impacts your smile. You know, like getting elbowed in the face by a cameraman, a la Tiger Woods last week in Cortina.
But while it can be easy to ignore the tenderness in your teeth, the root of the problem (get it?) may be much deeper. Here are six mystery tooth pains that you definitely shouldn’t brush off.
1. Cold Sensitivity
You feel an achy pain radiating from the core of your teeth after enduring a blast of wind as you walk outside or drink an icy beverage. If frigid temperatures pain your pearly whites for no more than 5 to 10 seconds, it’s probably nothing serious and you may want to start using toothpaste for sensitive teeth, says Robert S. Roda, D.D.S., M.S., the president of the American Association of Endodontists.
But if the pain persists, it’s possible you may have a broken filling or cavity, so you should book a dentist appointment, says Edmond R. Hewlett, D.D.S., professor at the UCLA School of Dentistry.
It also depends where the ache comes from, says Pia Lieb, D.D.S., a cosmetic dentist in New York City. If you feel discomfort all over your mouth, you may have periodontal (gum) disease, which causes the gums to recede and expose the tooth’s roots due to not sufficiently brushing or flossing. In that case, you should visit a periodontist, who will place composites over the exposed root to protect them from the cold.
If you experience irritation in specific areas of your mouth, your bite may be misaligned or your tooth enamel—the protective shell on the outside of your teeth—may have chipped off. Your dentist can help you adjust your bite so you don’t take too much stress on specific teeth, says Dr. Lieb.
If your lack of enamel is the cause, search your drugstore for protective toothpastes and cut back on foods and drinks that wear away your mineral layer, like soda or coffee.
2. Sore Gums
The unnoticed poppy seed jammed between your front teeth can bring you more than a bit of embarrassment. If your gums feel sore in a specific area of your mouth, trapped food bits are usually the culprits, says Dr. Lieb. Any foreign object that gets displaced under the gum can cause inflammation, she says.
On the other end of the spectrum, Dr. Roda says tender gums may also be the earliest signs of significant gum disease, which can develop if you don’t get your teeth cleaned regularly. (The American Dental Association recommends a checkup every 6 months.)
Another alarming possibility? The tissue inside your tooth pulp—the tooth’s center that contains blood vessels, connective tissue and nerves—may be dying or infected, says Dr. Roda. This can be caused from sports injuries, like a baseball to the mouth, which can cut off the tip of your root from its blood supply.
Additionally, if you don’t clean your mouth well, the healthy pulp tries to rid itself of harmful bacteria on its own, but could choke the blood vessels by raising the pulp’s pressure instead.
3. Bite Sensitivity
Soreness when chewing or biting may be a sign that your canines are cracked, so go to the dentist immediately if you don’t want them to split completely in half, says Dr. Roda.
How did this happen? Blame modern dental hygiene. Teeth are lasting longer than in prior generations due to good brushing and flossing habits, Dr. Roda says. The repetitive daily stress you put on your mouth inevitably will lead to fractures down the line, and the dental community is currently struggling with how to preserve your pearly whites.
Other possible causes include a heavy bite contact, dead nerve tissue, or abscessed teeth (painful infection at the root), says Dr. Hewlett. The next step? By now, it’s a familiar refrain: Make an appointment with your dentist.
4. Broad Jaw Achiness (With a Side of Headaches and Sore Cheeks)
Blame an annoying habit for that dispersed ache in your jaws that’s difficult to pinpoint: bruxism, or grinding or clenching your jaw. (What’s the difference? You grind your teeth at night, you clench during the day.) This unintentional wear and tear can normally be treated with a night guard that locks your jaws so they can’t move, says Dr. Lieb.
Another, more cost-effective cure: awareness. If you notice you’re clamping your chompers like Tom Cruise playing volleyball in Top Gun, slowly blow air out of your mouth, allowing your upper and lower jaw to disengage, advises Dr. Lieb.
The natural resting place of the jaw muscles is when your teeth are hanging 1 to 2 millimeters apart, says Dr. Roda. So try opening your mouth and guiding your jaws to that position.
5. Dull Pain in Your Top Teeth When Walking on Hard Surfaces
You’re not crazy—this is actually a thing. And the harder the surface, the more painful your top teeth feel. “It’s pretty certain that you have a sinus problem of some kind,” says Dr. Lieb. The dull pain may become more pronounced if you’re walking up and down stairs or you jump off of something and land.
“The roots of your upper teeth stick up into the sinus,” says Dr. Roda. “With a sinus infection, your sinus fills with fluid, and it can cause various types of sensations.” The feeling should cease when your sinus infection clears.
6. Burning Sensation on Your Tongue
Alarmed that your tongue burns and slightly resembles a map of islands? You’re not alone, and this weird image actually has a name: geographic tongue.
What processes transform your mouth into a cartographer? Your tongue’s surface is covered with papillae, which resemble a sort of 1960s shag rug, says Dr. Lieb. When you’re stressed or your immune system is lowered, you can lose the papillae, a similar idea to chopping your shag rug with scissors. The papillae protect your tongue, so your guard is down and acidic foods or drinks may lead to more intense burning. The fuzzy surface will grow back on its own, Dr. Lieb says, taking anywhere from a day to a week.