Do your teeth hurt when you consume foods or liquids that are cold, hot, sweet or sour? Does brushing and flossing cause a sharp pain? If so, you most likely have dentin hypersensitivity – which is commonly known as sensitive teeth. This is an especially frustrating condition that limits the types of foods and drinks you can enjoy (not to mention making you dread following your daily oral care routine) — but is it ultimately even more serious?
Although your friends and family members who don’t experience tooth sensitivity may think you’re being too — well – sensitive about this condition, be assured you’re not alone! More than 40 percent of people complain of sensitive teeth — most between the ages of 20 to 50. As you’ll learn, a number of factors contribute to tooth sensitivity. One single factor may be the cause, or a combination. Genetics alone is seldom the culprit, although some people are genetically predisposed to conditions that lead to tooth sensitivity as a symptom — such as periodontal (gum) disease and cavities.
What is Tooth Sensitivity?
So what makes teeth sensitive to temperature changes and other stimuli? Keep in mind that teeth are living tissue (except those that have had a root canal).
“In healthy teeth, a layer of enamel protects the crowns of your teeth — the part above the gum line. Under the gum line a layer called cementum protects the tooth root. Underneath both the enamel and the cementum is dentin. Dentin is less dense than enamel and cementum and contains microscopic tubules (small hollow tubes or canals). When dentin loses its protective covering of enamel or cementum these tubules allow heat and cold or acidic or sticky foods to reach the nerves and cells inside the tooth. Dentin may also be exposed when gums recede. The result can be hypersensitivity.”
What Can Cause Tooth Sensitivity?
The wearing away of enamel is the main cause of tooth sensitivity, although as we’ve learned, receding gums and any other condition — such as gum disease and tooth decay — that exposes dentin can trigger it.
Cleveland Clinic provides the following list of common causes:
Brushing too hard — Over time, brushing too hard or using a hard-bristled toothbrush can wear down enamel and cause the dentin to be exposed. It can also cause gum recession (when your gum tissue pulls away from your teeth). Our blog post — “What You Need to Know About Gum Recession” — covers this condition in detail.
Cracked teeth — Chipped or broken teeth may fill with bacteria from plaque and enter the pulp, causing inflammation.
Teeth grinding — Grinding or clenching your teeth may wear down the enamel and expose underlying dentin.
Teeth whitening products — These products are major contributors to teeth sensitivity. If you want to brighten your smile, talk to your dentist about teeth whitening. Our blog post — “Teeth Whitening: Is it Safe to DIY?” — covers in detail the drawbacks of using over-the-counter products.
Plaque buildup — The presence of plaque on the root surfaces can cause sensitivity.
Mouthwash use — Some over-the-counter mouthwashes contain acids that can worsen teeth sensitivity if you have exposed dentin. The acids further damage the dentin layer itself. If you have dentin sensitivity, ask your dentist about the use of a neutral fluoride solution.
Acidic foods — Regular consumption of foods with a high acid content — such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, pickles and tea — can cause enamel erosion.
Recent dental procedures — People can get sensitive teeth after fillings, teeth cleanings and dental restoration placement. Sensitivity caused by dental procedures is temporary and usually disappears in four to six weeks.
What Treatments Are Available for Tooth Sensitivity?
Talk to your dentist about your tooth sensitivity. As you’ve learned, some causes are actually symptoms of gum disease, gum recession or tooth decay. Your dentist can then diagnose and recommend the appropriate treatment. Although toothpastes formulated for sensitive teeth are heavily advertised and widely available, using them to treat yourself should your sensitivity be caused by an oral disease will only delay the timely treatment that is necessary to prevent progression. Of course, scheduling regular twice-yearly check-ups and cleanings with your dentist will allow early detection and treatment of a serious condition.
To reduce your risk of teeth sensitivity caused by normal wear and tear, Cleveland Clinic recommends the following:
Use desensitizing toothpaste —There are several brands of toothpaste for sensitive teeth. With regular use, you should notice a decrease in sensitivity. You may need to try several different brands to find the product that works best for you. Another tip: Spread a thin layer of the toothpaste on the exposed tooth roots with your finger or a Q-tip before you go to bed. Be sure to use fluoridated toothpaste.
Maintain good oral hygiene —Follow proper brushing and flossing techniques to thoroughly clean all areas of your teeth and mouth.
Use a soft-bristled toothbrush — This will result in less toothbrush abrasion to the tooth surface and less irritation to your gums.
Watch what you eat — Frequent consumption of highly acidic foods can gradually dissolve tooth enamel and lead to dentin exposure. They may also aggravate sensitivity and start the pain reaction.
Use fluoridated dental products — Daily use of a fluoridated mouth rinse can decrease sensitivity. Ask your dentist about available products for home use.
Avoid teeth grinding — If you grind or clench your teeth, use a mouth guard at night.
The Take-Home Message
Tooth sensitivity is a common problem that can be more complex than many people think, as it has numerous possible causes. However, protecting your tooth enamel is the first line of defense. Outside of the previously mentioned cases of gum disease, gum recession, tooth decay and damage to the tooth, good oral hygiene practices that avoid wearing away the enamel will go a long way in preventing tooth sensitivity. Make your dentist your partner in maintaining oral health, and enjoy a bright, pain-free smile for a lifetime!
It is our mission at NK Family Dental to provide the highest quality and most compassionate oral care to our Chicago patients, including dental and periodontal services. Our practice is trusted for advanced oral surgery procedures and comfortable root canal treatment.
Our team of experienced, dedicated dental professionals will help address your oral health concerns, and determine the best solution for you based on your individual situation. We strive to identify treatment options that fit your needs. Our dental specialists include our general dentist, Dr. Nilofer Khan, our endodontist, Dr. Sabek, and our periodontist, Dr. Amir Danesh. Dr. Danesh is a board-certified periodontist and Diplomat of the American Board of Periodontology. He has contributed to the publication of two books, as well as published over 20 papers in prestigious dental research journals.
We understand that the main concern you may have is cost, which is why we accept all major PPO plans for dental insurance and also offer our in-house dental plan. Please see our financing page for more information.