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The very moment that we begin to notice feelings of sensitivity when biting down into our favorite icy treat or see a spot on our teeth resembling a cavity, many of us pick up the phone and schedule an appointment with a dentist. Afterall, we know how important the health of our teeth is to our entire body.

But what about those pains we feel in our gums? Are we giving these roommates to our teeth as much attention as they need? Let’s jump in and talk about the possible reasons your gums may be feeling less-than-great and what you can do about it.

What Does Gum Pain Feel Like?

Depending on what issue you are having, the pain in your gums may vary in its sensation. Some gum pain is experienced as a slow, throbbing pain. Other times, people may feel like their gums are raw and sensitive to the touch. Finally, gums may feel swollen and sensitive to the consumption of foods of different temperatures.

What if you feel nothing at all? If you notice that a portion of your gums is numb, do a test by dipping a cotton swab into water, placing it into the freezer and, once it has frozen, touching it to your gums over different teeth, one by one. If you do not feel the coldness over one or more teeth, it is time to visit a dentist as you may have an issue with the canal in those teeth.

What Is Causing My Gum Pain?

1. Gingivitis

Gingivitis, though the name sounds pretty fierce, is actually a common condition that many adults experience, to some varying degree. Gingivitis occurs when the same plaque that loves to build up on your teeth sets up camp on your gums. While it does not always cause pain, gingivitis can create swollen areas on the gums and sufferers may experience some discomfort.

2. Periodontitis

Periodontitis is the escalated disease that can develop if gingivitis is not properly treated. Because gingivitis does not always present painful symptoms, it can be easy for it to go unnoticed and evolve into periodontitis (what people are usually referring to when saying gum disease).

This disease is more easily detected as redness, swelling, and bleeding of the gums during brushing or flossing are normative symptoms. Ironically, periodontitis occurs when brushing and flossing are not done frequently or thoroughly enough.

If gum disease is able to continue without treatment, it may worsen to the point of affecting the bones that support your mouth. After gum swelling and bleeding, the gums may begin to recede, causing sensitivity. Cavities may also form up near the root if food becomes trapped under the gaps between your teeth and gums. Finally, in severe cases, infection may occur causing the teeth to loosen and/or the stabilizing bones to become weak and broken.

3. Abscessed Tooth

You may feel pain in your gums that does not originate in your gums at all. Perhaps you have an abscess tooth. Abscess tooth is the term for an area of infection found inside or at the very root of a tooth. This infection may cause a pocket of pus to form which will create pain and pressure in the gums.

When you have an infection by the root of your tooth, it forms a pus pocket, or abscess. These don’t always hurt, but many do. Some abscessed teeth also cause the gums to swell. If your gums hurt or are swollen, see your dentist. You may need a root canal to treat it.

4. Tobacco Use

Smoking is bad for you, that is now a well-known fact. But in addition to its lung dangers, it can be bad for your teeth and gums. On the lowest level, tobacco use in various forms can discolor your teeth, leaving unsightly stains where teeth used to be clear and white.

Also, using tobacco by chewing, snuffing, or dipping it equates to a higher chance of gum disease and oral cancers. This is true because smokeless tobacco is often tucked inside the cheek where it can sit for long periods of time during use. If you are a tobacco user and notice sores along your gums, seek a medical professional.

Read more on the dangers of tobacco use here.

5. Oral cancer

Now that we have broached the subject of oral cancer, let's take a moment to discuss some of the symptoms that you may experience. You may feel tenderness in your gums and dismiss it as being just gingivitis or perhaps a canker sore. But if the pain does not subside and you notice any of the following symptoms along with it, the problem may go further than just your gums. Here are a few symptoms of oral cancer:

  • Loose teeth
  • A growth or sore inside the mouth that will not go away
  • Pain inside the ear
  • Difficulty or pain when trying to swallow
  • Patches of white or red on a surface in your mouth

Head in to your dentist as soon as possible if you suspect you may be dealing with one or any combination of these symptoms. Oral cancer is serious and it must be treated by a professional.

6. Hormonal changes

Hormones change throughout our lives and, especially for women, you may notice some of those changes creating changes in your gums. During puberty, extra blood may be present in your gums which could make them feel swollen or sensitive. For similar reasons, women on their period may notice tenderness during this time, as well.

Other hormonal changes that affect women specifically are pregnancy and menopause. During menopause, women may experience changes to the color of their gums, as well as bleeding, burning, or a general pain sensation.

7. Braces

The shifting of your teeth when wearing braces can create a painful tension inside your gums, especially if an adjustment was recently made. This is no cause for concern and the pain should subside in a few days of the adjustment appointment.

8. Canker Sores

These sores generally look round, with a white center, surrounded by a red line. Here are a few reasons you might be seeing these sores:

  • You sustained a small injury after dental work, brushing with too much gusto, or accidentally biting down on your cheek.
  • You used a toothpaste or mouthwash containing sodium lauryl sulfate (also called SLS).
  • You are sensitive to certain foods. (Common culprits are: Coffee, strawberries, chocolate, eggs, cheese, cheese, acidic foods, and nuts.
  • You need more B-12, iron, folic acid, or zinc
  • You have bacteria in your mouth that is irritating your cheeks and gums

Some people may notice the appearance of canker sores after being sick with a cold, not sleeping well, or feeling higher amounts of stress than usual.

Whatever the cause may be, canker sores can rest in the cheeks, on the sides of the tongue, or even tucked away in the creases of your gums along the cheek. While canker sores can go away on their own within a week or two, you will notice some pain at the location of the sore while it is still present.

9. Thrush

This is not just for babies. Yes, thrush is often found in the mouths of infants but adults are able to get it too. Thrush is a form of yeast infection that can manifest itself as a white or grey looking coating on your tongue or inside your cheeks. But aside from a sensitive tongue, thrush can cause pain in the gums as well. While some mild forms of thrush can be relieved by eating yogurts containing live cultures, thrush that has spread to the roof of the month or gums may require prescription treatment by a doctor.

How To Help With Gum Pain

Obviously there are causes for painful symptoms in the gums that can only be aided by a medical or dental professional. Contact your dentist if you have concerns regarding any of these major issues. Otherwise, you may be able to alleviate gum pain and deal with gum issues at home.

Here are a few ways you now know to avoid pain in your gums, and a few new extras:

  • Go to the dentist regularly to rule out any major issues like gum disease or oral cancer. 
  • Only use mouthwash and toothpaste that does not contain sodium lauryl sulfate.
  • Stop smoking or using tobacco products.
  • Brush regularly with a fluoride toothpaste and floss regularly, as well.
  • Avoid using toothbrushes with hard bristles.
  • Rinse your mouth with warm salt water.
  • Use over-the-counter medicines, gels, or mouthwashes made to alleviate pain.
  • Avoid eating too much spicy, salty, and acidic foods.

You may notice that the use of a sensitive toothpaste is not listed here. The reason for this is, toothpastes marketed toward sensitive teeth or gums only remove the sensation of pain, but they do not treat the cause of the pain. It is more beneficial to use a toothpaste that contains protective fluoride regularly, and visit your dentist to find out ways to deal with the cause of your pain.

Gum pain does not have to go untreated, and you do not have to deal with it forever. Keep up a good oral care routine and treat your gums well. They will thank you for it!

This page was written or reviewed for accuracy by the Twice Team. Learn more about us.