Types of Dental Pain

A toothache is never fun, but what can it tell you about the condition of your teeth? Allen Daniels, DDS, of Bright Dental in Bright, Indiana, says that the type of dental pain you’re experiencing says a lot about the severity of the underlying problem. Here he talks about the progression of tooth decay and the type of pain caused by each phase.

There are several types of dental pain. Each represents a different type of problem and indicates a different course of treatment. Because the type of dental pain you are experiencing is an important diagnostic tool for your dentist, it’s important for you to explain what you’re feeling in as much detail as possible. Here are some examples of the types of dental pain and what they indicate about underlying conditions.


“Sensitivity” is a general term used to describe dental pain that is mild to moderate in severity and that usually occurs in response to a certain type of stimulus. Surface sensitivity, for example, is a type of localized pain that occurs when something touches the surface of an affected tooth. You may notice this type of sensitivity when you eat, as your fork touches the surfaces of your teeth, or when you brush, as the bristles contact your teeth.

Surface sensitivity usually occurs when the enamel on the tooth’s surface has been worn down and the dentin is exposed. This type of dental pain, although in response to a touch, is caused by fluid transmission. Touching the exposed dentin actually causes fluid to be transferred through the tubules from the surface of the tooth to the nerve, and that movement of fluid causes pain in the nerve.

Teeth sometimes also become sensitive to temperature changes when not enough enamel is present. But sensitivity doesn’t always indicate a major problem. Sometimes sensitivity simply indicates that the surface of the tooth isn’t covered as well as it should be. In these cases, there are some easy, non-invasive treatment options available to relieve the symptoms. However, even though sensitivity isn’t always a warning sign of impending decay, it shouldn’t be ignored. Identifying potential decay early is essential for preventing further damage and pain.


An entirely different type of pain is experienced when a tooth has decayed. Decay occurs as the result of bacteria in the mouth. This bacteria releases toxic acids that are harming the tooth’s root on an ongoing basis and, if left unchecked, will actually cause the root to die. The pain associated with tooth decay is usually experienced initially as a nagging pain, but can become an extremely intense as the nerve reaches its threshold and can no longer withstand the damage from the acids. Once this intense level of pain is experienced, it can be assumed that the nerve has become extremely inflamed although it may not necessarily have reached an abscessed or infectious state yet.


When decay is allowed to progress, we begin to see abscesses form. This means that an infection has taken hold of the tooth’s root. When an abscess forms at the end of the tooth’s root, a tremendous amount of pressure is created and applied to the underlying bone. This intense pressure actually damages the bone itself. This type of pain is some of the worst pain we can experience. For this reason, it’s important to pay attention to the early warning signs of tooth decay so that the problem can be corrected, either with a filling or a more in-depth procedure, before it becomes extremely painful.

*Disclaimer: The information on this website is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your healthcare provider. We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with an appropriate healthcare provider.

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