How to Manage Orofacial Pain

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Orofacial pain can literally be a pain in the neck — or in the head, face, mouth or jaws. Wherever you're feeling it, the explanation for the discomfort might be something simple like a cavity or from a cause that could be harder to identify. At-home treatments, medications and dental or surgical intervention may help depending on the cause of your pain.

What Causes the Pain?

According to University of Florida Health (UF Health), dental conditions are responsible for over 95 percent of cases of orofacial pain. The second most common cause is temporomandibular disorder (TMD), followed by a long list of other problems in the orofacial area. The dental conditions that could be behind that annoying ache or stabbing sensation include tooth decay, tooth abscesses, gum disease, inflammation of the tooth pulp and dental hypersensitivity. TMD is a blanket term that covers a range of jaw joint disorders. UF Health also lists vascular inflammation, damage or diseases of the somatosensory system, and traumatic or surgical injury of the peripheral nerve as some other causes.

Dental Conditions

The type of pain you feel in or near your teeth helps your dentist diagnose what's the cause of the problem. As the American Association of Endodontists explains, sensitivity when you're eating or drinking very hot or cold foods or beverages often indicates gum recession or minor decay, but if you feel a sharp pain when you bite down, your tooth might be cracked or have a loose filling or cavity. The National Health Service says that severe tooth pain that travels to your ear, jaw and neck is a sign of a tooth abscess. If you suspect you have an abscessed tooth, over-the-counter medications help relieve the pain, but you should see a dentist as soon as possible.

Temporomandibular Disorder (TMD)

Jaw joints are complicated structures. Sometimes the muscles and setting of the joints develop disorders that cause discomfort and pain. The Journal of Pain Research mentions recurrent or persistent earache, headache, jaw ache, toothache, facial pain and a feeling of pressure or fullness around the joint area as the major symptoms of TMD. Dentists diagnose the condition after an examination of the neck and head, a look inside the mouth, a close assessment of the jaw muscles and a check of the range of movement in the jaw.

Managing Orofacial Pain at Home

Home pain management methods may reduce your orofacial pain, but you should also see a medical professional for a diagnosis. Over-the-counter pain medications provide temporary relief until your dentist can discover the cause of the problem.

Your dentist might be able to suggest how to reduce your symptoms at home. For instance, if you suffer from tooth sensitivity you can use a soft toothbrush and toothpaste for sensitive teeth. The Journal of Pain Research notes that at-home treatment is effective at alleviating discomfort for many TMD patients. The journal's advice for TMD patients includes the following:

  • Eating a soft diet
  • Reducing talking, yawning, chewing and other jaw movement
  • Applying ice or moist heat therapy

Medical Treatments

If a dental condition is responsible for your orofacial pain, dental work may put an end to your discomfort. The Mayo Clinic lists fillings, root canals, crowns, fluoride treatments and tooth extractions as possible ways to stop the pain caused by decay and cavities. In the case of TMD, physical therapy delivered by a qualified therapist might be all that's required to provide relief. The therapist can teach the patient exercises to perform at home, accompanied by a cooling or heating spray or electrical nerve stimulation. Medications that help manage TMD include analgesics, muscle relaxants, local anesthetic injections, corticosteroids and anti-depressants. An oral appliance or, in extreme cases, surgery are also used to alleviate TMD symptoms.

Although orofacial pain is a symptom with many possible causes, don't let this put you off from seeing a medical professional. Once you receive your diagnosis you can begin to take steps to reduce your discomfort, either at home or through dental or medical treatment.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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