I’m sure we've all experienced tooth sensitivity at some point. It can be a sudden, sharp pain that shoots down through the nerve endings of a tooth or a dull, sore ache of the teeth and jaw. This discomfort is triggered by hot, cold, acidic, sour or sweet foods or drinks, brushing, chewing or even breathing in cold air. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, you are probably suffering from a very common condition known as dentin hypersensitivity, or more commonly, sensitive teeth.
So what causes these painful sensations? The exposed part of our tooth is covered by enamel, an extremely hard substance that acts as a protective shield to our teeth. (Quick fact: enamel is actually the hardest substance in the human body!) Below the crown of the tooth, it is protected by your gums. If the enamel is worn down, or our gums recede too much, dentin is exposed. Dentin is the bony substance that makes up the majority of your tooth body and the roots of your teeth. It contains thousands of tiny tubules or canals that lead to the tooth’s nerve. When they are not covered by the solid enamel layer, or the protective barrier formed by the gums, the tubes in the dentin allow the stimuli (hot, cold, sweet, pressure, etc.) to reach the nerve. This stimulation of the nerve is what causes the pain or tooth irritation that you feel.
There are many factors that can contribute to these protective barriers (enamel and gum tissue) being compromised and lead to sensitive teeth. We've put together a list of the most common causes of tooth sensitivity and suggestions to resolve them:
- Teeth grinding or bruxism - Grinding or clenching your teeth together wears down the enamel and overtime, exposes the dentin layer of your teeth.
- Gum disease - gingivitis and periodontal disease both cause your gums to become inflamed and pull away from your teeth, exposing the root of the tooth.
- Brushing too hard - Brushing your teeth too vigorously or using a hard bristled toothbrush wears away enamel.
- Tooth decay or decay around old fillings - Cavities that reach down into deeper layers of your teeth can cause tooth sensitivity. Old fillings my also weaken and fracture. Bacteria can accumulate in these tiny crevices which causes build-up of acid and breakdown of the enamel. Solution: See your dentist and develop a treatment plan to address dental caries.
- Cracked teeth - Broken teeth may fill with bacteria and plaque and cause pain that may even go beyond tooth sensitivity.
- Excessive plaque - Extreme plaque buildup is a contributor to sensitive teeth as it causes enamel to wear away. Again, as your teeth lose their protective layers, they become more sensitive.
Solution: Talk to your dentist about your tooth grinding habits. He/she will examine your bite and may suggest treatment options like a custom fit mouth guard to protect your teeth or relaxing exercises before bed.
Solution: The best way to stave off gum disease is to have a solid oral health routine in place. Brushing, flossing and routine dental cleanings are all necessary aspects to help prevent gum disease. If you have advanced periodontal disease, options like scaling and root planning with your hygienist can help return your mouth to a healthy state.
Solution: Switch to a soft bristled toothbrush.
Solution: Your dentist should evaluate chipped or cracked teeth and come up with a treatment plan that addresses this problem before it worsens.
Solution: Schedule a cleaning with your hygienist and then develop a dental health routine that prevents plaque build-up. Your dentist may recommend a special toothpaste or mouthwash.
Solution: Limit your intake of acidic foods or follow up consumption of them with a glass of water to help rinse away remaining acid.
Solution: If the sensitivity lasts for more than 4-6 weeks following a dental treatment, talk to your dentist.
Solution: Visit with your dentist about options to whiten your teeth that are safer and cause less irritation. Most in-office procedures are more effective than at home remedies and there are many options for teeth whitening for those with dentin hypersensitivity.
If these solutions do not solve your problem, your dentist can also prescribe a desensitizing tooth paste or schedule an in-office fluoride gel treatmentto help strengthen enamel and reduce the sensations you are feeling.
You don’t have to just “deal” with the pain and discomfort of sensitive teeth. Develop a treatment plan with your oral health care professional and get back to enjoying your favorite foods and drinks!