Among the “to-do” items on your pre-dive checklist like “Pack wetsuit” or “Fill scuba tanks,” be sure to add one other: “Check my dental health status.”
While that may seem like an odd concern, the changes in atmospheric pressure you encounter while diving (or flying, for that matter) could amplify oral sensitivity and intensify pain if you have pre-existing teeth or jaw problems.
The reason for this is the effect of basic physics on the body. All anatomical structures, including organs, bones, and muscles, equalize external pressures the body encounters. We don’t notice this at normal atmospheric pressure, but when we encounter an extreme — either lower pressure during air flight or higher pressure during a scuba dive — we may feel the effects of the pressure on any structure with a rigid-walled surface filled with either air or fluid. These structures can’t equalize the pressure as fast as other areas, resulting in pain or discomfort. This is known medically as “barotrauma,” or more commonly as a “squeeze.”
One structure, in particular, could have an effect on your upper teeth and jaws: the sinus cavities of the skull, particularly the maxillary sinuses just below the eyes. Their lower walls are right next to the back teeth of the upper jaw and, more importantly, share the same nerve pathways. It’s quite possible, then, for pain from one area to be felt in the other, commonly known as “referred pain.” A toothache could then be felt in the sinus region, and vice-versa.
During a squeeze, then, pain levels from existing problems in the teeth and jaws that were previously tolerable (or even unnoticed) may well become amplified as the pressure from the sinus cavity impinges upon the jaw. That dull toothache you’ve been having may suddenly become excruciating at 30,000 feet — or 30 meters under the surface.
That’s why it’s important to see us if you’ve experienced any signs of tooth decay, gum disease or TMD, including pain, before your next dive or air flight. And, if you encounter any significant pain while flying or diving, be sure you consult with us as soon as possible when you return. Taking action now could help you avoid a miserable, and potentially dangerous, flying or diving experience in the future.
If you would like more information on pressure changes and dental health, 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 and Sinus Pain.”