People who fly or scuba dive know firsthand how changes in atmospheric pressure can affect the body: as minor as a popping in the ears, or as life-threatening as decompression sickness. Pressure changes can also cause pain and discomfort in your teeth and sinuses — in fact, severe pain could be a sign of a bigger problem.
Barotrauma (baro – “pressure;” trauma – “injury”), also known as a “squeeze,” occurs when the unequal air pressures outside and inside the body attempt to equalize. Many of the body's organs and structures are filled with air within rigid walls; the force created by equalization presses against these walls and associated nerves, which in turn causes the pain.
The sinus cavities and the middle ear spaces are especially sensitive. Each of these has small openings that help with pressure equalization. However, they can become swollen or blocked with mucous (as when you have a head cold), which slows equalization and contributes to the pain.
It's also possible to experience tooth pain during pressure change. This is because the back teeth in the upper jaw share the same nerve pathways as the upper jaw sinuses — pain originating from the sinuses can be felt in the teeth, and vice-versa. In fact, it's because of this shared pathway that pressure changes can amplify pain from a tooth with a deeper problem, such as a crack, fracture or a defect in dental work.
Besides problems with your teeth, the severe pain could also be related to temporo-mandibular joint dysfunction (TMD), which is pain or discomfort in the small joint that connects your lower jaw to your skull. There are a number of causes for this, but a common one for scuba divers is an ill-fitted regulator mouthpiece that they are biting down on too hard while diving. A custom-fitted mouthpiece could help alleviate the problem.
If you've been experiencing tooth pain during pressure change events, you should see us for an examination before you fly or dive again. There might be more to your pain — and correcting these underlying problems could save you extreme discomfort in the future.
If you would like more information on the effects of atmospheric pressure changes on teeth, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Pressure Changes Can Cause Tooth & Sinus Pain.”