2 of my clients are as unique as are their cases. Both of them work with MNCs, are extremely health conscious and are especially concerned about their Dental health. They have been visiting dentist since the time they remember (they are of course my clients now!) and ensure that their oral hygiene stays in top shape.

Recently they have been plagued by a unique condition, they have unbearable tooth ache when they fly! As unique as it may sound, this is not so unique for dentists. I have been seeing such cases for since the time I began my career as a professional dentist.

There are combos which are fabulous together – butter and jelly, wine and cheese but toothaches and airplanes are a terrible combo. The pain does hurt one psychologically as well because of inability to get help right away and dreading about how much it can get aggravated. People who have experienced this pain suggest that it’s the pain of the worst kind – jaws hurt, cranium hurts, eyes water basically the worst nightmares.

People who have such condition often feel that the source of the pain is essentially the tooth/teeth which has also bothered them in past. This might or might not always be true.

What is the reason?

The reason for this nasty pain is basic Physics. The air pressure in the body which also is the pressure in the sinuses, ear drums etc. must equalize with the cabin pressure inside the aircraft. The unavoidable truth however is the fact that the air pressure inside the cabin changes frequently specially during ascent and descent. These are essentially the most painful times for people who suffer from the notorious“Airplane Pain”.

Why the teeth?

To keep the pressure inside the sinus cavities consistent with the pressure in the cabin people chew gums, swallow candies or water and try popping their ears. Same principle applies with the teeth. Air trapped in the teeth and changes in pressure can initiate pain and worsen it. 

So it is essentially the air trapped in the teeth which is the root cause of the pain but then why does air get trapped inside the teeth.

2 Basic Reasons

Reason 1: Tooth Decay: When a tooth decays microscopic pores get created and they offer space for the air to get trapped inside. When one boards the plane, the trapped air cannot keep up with the cabin pressure and the pressure difference makes one experience the tooth ache. But then my clients took great care of their teeth, why them? Which is where reason 2 comes in play.

Reason 2: One may have gotten a filling or other dental procedures done some time back. They might get loose in daily wear & tear. Air gets trapped in dental procedures and has nowhere to go. The air can escape slowly but cannot keep up with the rapid changes in the cabin pressure. This is especially true of the older dental fillings which can have microscopic gap or holes that develop overtime and lead to trapped air. 

Is there a way out?

Chewing gum or swallowing food/water will not help the cause as it will not help relieve pressure inside the teeth. The upper teeth are positioned right underneath the sinuses and sinus pain may seem like tooth ache. If its sinus pain then chewing gums, swallowing, using earplugs etc. will help relieve the pain. If it’s teeth causing pain then visiting your dentist is the only way out.Pain killers might or might not help. It will help if it’s the sinus or tissues hurting.

How does one prepare for this ordeal?

In case medications help you relieve pain then please have the medication 20-30 minutes before boarding the flight. In case of longer flight you might also want pop a pill right before the plane starts to descend.If you suffer from such pain try taking soft foods during the flight.Avoid drinking tea/coffee/sugary drinks, not only do they dehydrate you but also aggravate the condition. Instead have lots of water and juices.Avoid dental surgeries/procedures within a day of your flight. If you must have it done, carry cotton along, you might experience bleeding from gums along with tooth pain.If at any point in your trip, you experience fever, swelling or redness of gums do visit a dentist.

How to prevent it in the long term?

I have suggested this in past, I am doing it again at the cost of being repetitive, catch up with your dentist at least twice a year. They will have a look at the past procedures done and see if there something new developing. A little time with your dentist will save you the hassle of having an entire trip ruined.