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What is Referred Tooth Pain?

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Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

Tooth pain can be a helpful alert to potential oral health issues. Paying attention to any discomfort allows you to address problems early and manage the pain. Tooth pain could indicate a problem within or near the tooth, or it could be a message that there is a problem in another part of the body. In dentistry, when pain in another area of your body transfers to your teeth, it is called referred tooth pain. Read on to understand how a referred toothache occurs, its causes, and ways to tackle it.

What is Referred Toothpain?

Referred tooth pain occurs when pain from somewhere else in your body moves to your teeth, making it feel like you have pain in tooth. It's like feeling discomfort in your head when you eat something really cold. Dental causes of toothache can include caries or cavities, abscesses, gum disease (periodontal disease), and other oral problems.

Root canal therapy, dental implants, and partial dentures are also known to cause mild, temporary discomfort in some cases. However, non-dental causes may not be obvious. Proper diagnosis by a dentist is essential to avoid unnecessary dental treatments or tooth extractions to save your permanent teeth.

How Does Referred Tooth Pain Happen?

Much research is ongoing to decode the exact mechanism of referred pain. Its occurrence can be mainly attributed to how the sensory information of pain (pain signals) travels between different parts of the body and the brain. The nerves in our body are all interconnected, and a lot may happen to the pain signals during their transmission through the nerves. 

For instance, pain signals from various parts of the face, such as muscles and teeth, may converge to the same neurons. Sometimes, stronger pain signals from the other parts may overwhelm the weaker signals from teeth, overloading and confusing the neurons. This leads the brain to misinterpret it as a pain in tooth, causing referred tooth pain.

Causes of Referred Toothaches

Different factors, such as respiratory diseases, problems with the heart or lungs, or certain neurological conditions, can cause tooth pain of non-dental origin. Some of the common causes of referred tooth pain include:


Sinusitis can sometimes be a significant cause of dental pain. Pain in the upper teeth on both sides of the face (maxillary teeth) can indicate sinusitis. Sinus cavities are located close to the roots of the upper back teeth. When infected, they become inflamed and filled with mucus, applying pressure to the teeth' roots, creating a pain similar to a toothache.

In such cases, tooth pain may be accompanied by nasal congestion and tenderness around the sinuses. While you suspect the toothache might be from sinusitis, it is ideal to consult a dentist for proper diagnosis and pain medication.

New Filling or Dental Cavity

If you have received a dental filling for a decayed tooth, you may experience pain in another tooth for a short period. The pain signals from the filled tooth propagate to other teeth. If a decayed tooth is left untreated, the cavity formed may cause tooth pain. An oral cavity is a small hole that forms due to tooth decay, and if treated early, saves the teeth from further damage. 

Regular brushing and flossing are among the preventive measures for cavities. Colgate Active Salt is an ideal toothpaste pick for your dental care routine. Its active salt microcrystals provide a unique germ-fighting formula to scrub off sticky germs, prevent cavities, and give you healthier teeth and gums. It helps prevent plaque buildup, tooth pain, yellowness, and gum problems. Its refreshing minty flavour keeps bad breath away.


Sometimes, a pain in the teeth can be a result of a headache. Cluster headaches and migraines can trigger referred tooth pain. One may experience toothache-like pain in the upper premolar or canine teeth. This kind of pain, called neurovascular toothache, resembles tooth pain due to similar underlying causes: the inflammation of the blood vessels and nerves. The pain may be easily mistaken for a tooth problem. In such cases, dental treatment may not be the solution, and your dentist can correctly diagnose it.

Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is a significant yet less common cause of referred tooth pain. It connects the internal organs, such as the heart and lungs, to other body parts and passes through the lower jaw before reaching the brain. Hence, pain from your heart or lungs travels along the vagus nerve and can be felt as a toothache. In dentistry, it is known as a cardiac toothache if it originates from the heart or a visceral toothache if it originates from your internal organs.

Neurological Conditions

Sometimes, neurological conditions may cause tooth pain. For example, trigeminal neuralgia is a condition that can affect nerves in the face, teeth, and skull. It is characterized by the inflammation of the nerves and severe pain in the face that may also be felt on teeth, resembling a toothache.

Referred Tooth Pain Treatments

It is natural to seek immediate relief when toothache strikes. If you suspect referred tooth pain, it is essential to consult a dentist without delay, as you would do for dental problems. The dentist examines the underlying cause of the pain. If the chances of dental problems are ruled out, your dentist may use a referred tooth pain chart that shows which parts of the face might experience discomfort due to a problem elsewhere in the body.  

For non-dental causes, such as sinusitis, the dentist may refer you to a medical professional for treatment. Meanwhile, over-the-counter pain medications and home remedies may provide temporary pain relief to some people. However, these pain relievers do not address the underlying cause. Following the usage instructions and recommended dosage is also necessary. 

Tooth pain may signal a dental or non-dental problem. Consulting a dentist is the best way to tackle it. Though its causes may be non-dental, maintaining a good oral care routine is crucial to keeping dental problems at bay. Brushing twice daily with a soft toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste, flossing, using mouthwash, and having regular dental visits and follow-ups will help maintain good oral health.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why can't I tell where my tooth pain is coming from?

When you do not have oral problems that can cause a toothache, it is likely a referred tooth pain that indicates a problem somewhere else in the body. As the nerves from the teeth and other body parts sometimes converge and share pathways, the stronger pain signals from other parts may cause the brain to misinterpret them as toothache.

2. Can tooth pain resolve itself?

One may wonder whether tooth pain will go away on its own or what is the best medicine for tooth pain. With a proper diagnosis by a dentist, tooth pain due to dental causes can be alleviated with dental treatments and good oral hygiene. Non-dental causes may require professional medical treatments.

3. What is referred pain from wisdom teeth?

Wisdom teeth, the third molars, often grow in the wrong direction and get stuck in the gums. When this occurs, it can cause pain that spreads to nearby teeth. Besides gum pain, an impacted tooth can also lead to referred tooth pain in the jaw, ear, and head.