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Of course, the answer to a toothache is always “see your dentist.” But this advice isn’t all that helpful when you can’t see your dentist right away and the pain is unbearable.
In this article, I’m sharing my best method for getting out of pain from toothaches or gum pain, techniques to reduce the pain while you wait for your dentist appointment, and the common mistakes people make that actually make the pain worse.
The 3-3-3 Method for Tooth Pain
When getting out of tooth pain, it’s all about controlling the swelling. Reduce the swelling and you reduce the pain. Short-term, the best way to reduce this inflammation is with the 3-3-3 method: three Advil (600 mg total), three times a day, for three days.
What not to do: Don’t take the Advil and then stop once you start to get pain relief. The trick with Advil is to keep the levels up, because if you back off, it takes a while for the Advil kick in again and reduce inflammation.
Keep in mind that this method can’t do anything to address the root cause of your tooth pain. You also have to check with your doctor that you can take ibuprofen. Tooth pain almost never goes away by itself—so don’t use this method for anything else except for getting out of pain enough to tide you over until your dentist appointment.
Natural Toothache Relief
If you can’t take Advil (and many people can’t, so check with your doctor), there are several natural methods you can use to reduce the pain.
Salt Rinse: Rinse with my super-saturated salt rinse. Here’s how you make it: Pour a glass of warm to hot water (boiling temperature not necessary) and slowly stir in either Himalayan or dead sea salt (here’s the one I use – I find it dissolves best if you get extra-fine grain) until you see salt crystals at the bottom that are no longer dissolving. Rinse with this solution 4-5 times daily to reduce inflammation and contract the tissues. This rinse is especially effective with gum pain and foreign body response to something like a poppy seed stuck in between the gums.
Clove Oil: Clove is an essential oil that may provide pain relief as strong as benzocaine (The Journal of Dentistry, 2006). The active ingredient is eugenol, which, although occurring in nature, has safety concerns according to the EWG. Most health food stores have clove oil for a few dollars a bottle. The brand I like to use is the Now brand. To use it, apply a very small amount to a cotton swab or piece of tissue and apply gently to the affected area. This works well if there is an exposed nerve due to a deep cavity. Specific placement of the clove oil is crucial for success—it will only work if you place the oil near the pulpal tissue (the inner substance of the tooth).
Grab a Pillow: Keep your head elevated at all times. For sleep, stay elevated with a wedge-shaped pillow like this one or by stacking several pillows. When you drop your head to the level of your heart by lying down, blood supply gradients to your head change making swelling and pain worse.
Keep the Area Cold: Frozen peas or a plastic Ziploc bag with half water and half ice works great as well. A wrap like this one lets you apply ice consistently to the area without having to hold it up to your face.
What Causes Tooth Pain?
Inside each of your teeth, you have living tissue with an artery, vein, and nerve. These parts of the tooth give the tooth sensation to pressure, hot, and cold, but also can get infected. Certain bacteria in your mouth excrete acids and bore their way through tooth enamel (the hard, white outer coating of teeth). Once bacteria get through enamel, they gain access to the inside structure, dentin—which is like a sponge with tubules, and the inside of the tooth responds to these invaders with inflammation.
When you cut your hand, there’s room to expand and swell up—but inside the hard enamel walls of a tooth, the swelling can’t expand—and that should give you a good sense of why tooth pain is excruciating. It’s rather unique, as there’s nowhere else in the body that this happens. This is why the 3-3-3 method works—it reduces the swelling.
Other causes of tooth pain:
- Food getting stuck between your teeth, especially if your teeth have spaces in between them
- Trauma to the tooth, including injury or grinding your teeth
- A sinus infection that can be felt as pain in the teeth
Once You’re at the Dentist
When you make your appointment, ask the office if there’s anything they recommend to deal with pain in the meantime. Record your pain—when did it start? How frequent is it? Is it radiating? Record possible root causes of the tooth pain, including new foods, new activities, or anything new in your routine.
Should I Go to the Emergency Room for My Toothache?
Don’t hesitate to go straight to the ER if you have:
- Pain that persists for more than a day or two
- A fever
- Signs and symptoms of infection such as swelling
- Your eyes are swelling shut
- Trouble breathing or swallowing
If you’re in pain right now, I hope this helps you get out of pain while you wait to see your dentist and I wish you a speedy recovery!
Dr. Mark Burhenne