If you’ve experienced tooth sensitivity, you know that it’s more than just an inconvenience—it’s downright painful! And it’s sometimes a sign that there could be a more serious problem brewing in your mouth.
What causes sensitive teeth? How can you prevent or manage the pain at home? And how do you know when it’s time for professional dental care? We’ve got answers to all your FAQ about tooth sensitivity here.
What Is Tooth Sensitivity?
Tooth sensitivity is when one tooth (or a set of teeth) is sensitive to certain stimulants. The pain involved is often quick and sharp, not lasting too long.
If you have sensitive teeth, also known as “dentin hypersensitivity,” it means that the protective layer on your tooth, called enamel, is too thin or is damaged, exposing the softer layer underneath, called dentin, or that your gums are damaged or receding, exposing the dentin at your tooth’s root. Dentin contains tubules, which are microscopic tubes that connect to the nerves within the tooth.
The enamel and gums normally shield the dentin, tubules, and nerves. It’s when the nerves are affected by outside stimuli—like when you take a bite of ice cream—that you’ll feel that flash of pain.
What Are the Symptoms of Tooth Sensitivity?
The symptoms of tooth sensitivity are actually pretty straightforward: discomfort or pain in response to some kind of trigger. The pain can range from mild to severe, but it’s normally short-lived and centered around one tooth or small area in your mouth. It’s often described as a shooting pain sensation.
The pain caused by tooth sensitivity can be triggered by any of the following:
- Cold air
- Sugary foods/drinks
- Hot or cold food or drink
- Spicy food
- Acidic food or drink
- Cold water
If you’re also experiencing one or more of the following symptoms, there may be a deeper problem than tooth sensitivity going on:
- The pain lasts longer than an hour
- You also experience pain when pressure’s placed on your teeth, like chewing
- Your gums under your sensitive tooth seem to be changing colour
- You’ve tried desensitizing toothpaste for a couple of weeks and there’s no change
What Are the Causes of Tooth Sensitivity?
There are several factors that could be at the root of your tooth sensitivity:
- Predisposition:You may have naturally thinner enamel, so it wears away easier and you’re prone to having sensitive teeth.
- Gingivitis and gum disease:When inflamed by the bacteria in plaque buildup, your gums shrink away from your tooth, leaving the dentin at the bottom exposed.
- A broken, cracked, or chipped tooth:If your tooth is damaged, this can expose the inner dentin to outside irritants. It can also lead to bacteria collecting in the tooth, leading to further inflammation and sensitivity. In this case, the tooth sensitivity will be localized.
- Tooth decay:Tooth sensitivity can also be a symptom of tooth decay, a.k.a. a cavity.
- Brushing your teeth too hard:If you’re using a toothbrush that’s too firm or if you are pressing too hard when you brush, you can actually wear down the enamel on your teeth.
- Grinding your teeth:Whether you’re grinding your teeth due to stress or while you’re sleeping, due to bite misalignment or sleep apnea, if it’s happening on a regular basis, it can damage your tooth enamel.
- Acidic food or drink:If you consume too much food or drink that is overly acidic, such as candy, citrus fruit, coffee, tea, red wine, fruit juice, and soda, this can erode enamel exposing the dentin over time.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): This digestive disorder triggers acid reflux, which means that tooth enamel can see a lot of damage over time.
- Chronic vomiting:Vomiting now and then isn’t much of a risk, but if you have a physical condition or an eating disorder that leads to throwing up on a regular basis, this can also lead to acid from the stomach wearing away the surfaces of your teeth.
- Mouthwash:If you’re regularly using a mouthwash that contains some form of acid, you could be contributing to the erosion of the protective layer on your teeth.
- Oral care procedures: If you’ve recently had dental work, you may have temporary tooth sensitivity. This includes teeth whitening/bleaching, root planing, crown work, and fillings. In this case, the sensitivity shouldn’t be long-term, plus it will generally be targeted on the area where you had work.
What Is the Treatment for Sensitive Teeth?
Anytime you’re experiencing tooth sensitivity, you should let your dentist know at your next regular checkup. If the pain is happening too frequently or getting more severe, if you have a damaged tooth that’s sensitive, or if you’re having any of the additional symptoms mentioned above (see “What Are the Symptoms of Tooth Sensitivity?”), you should make a dental care appointment as soon as possible.
While your lifestyle may provide some clues, your dentist needs to assess your oral health and symptoms and confirm the true cause of your sensitivity.
10 Ways to Treat Sensitive Teeth at Home
Meanwhile, there are some ways you can try at home to prevent or treat tooth sensitivity and get some relief, before you get in to see your dentist:
- Cut down on or even eliminate (depending on how severe your problem is) acidic and sweet food and beverages.
- Brush AND floss your teeth at least twice a day to eliminate food debris and bacteria that can lead to tooth decay, gingivitis, and gum disease.
- Use a soft toothbrush, and don’t be overzealous when brushing.
- Brush your teeth with warm water only; take a moment to soften the toothbrush head in the warm water before you get to brushing.
- Try desensitizing toothpaste, which helps seal those tubules in your teeth’s dentin. Make sure it’s fluoridated.
- Before you go to bed every night, apply a light layer of desensitizing toothpaste at the base of your sensitive teeth, where the roots may be exposed.
- Apply fluoride gel or use a rinse, to strengthen your enamel. You may need to get this from your dentist if your pharmacy doesn’t have it available over the counter.
- Replace alcohol-based mouthwash with a fluoridated rinse with no alcohol content.
- Consider taking a break from teeth whitening, if you can’t find any other cause for your sensitive teeth.
- If you know you grind your teeth, try some stress-reduction techniques (e.g. meditation) and also consider getting a nightguard to wear at night.
See Your Dentist for Additional Treatments
If the over-the-counter desensitizing toothpaste or fluoride products aren’t working, speak to your dentist about prescription options.
You can also talk to your dentist about fluoride varnish, if the at-home solutions aren’t working for you. Once every two to three months, your dentist or hygienist applies this to the sensitive teeth. It helps strengthen the enamel.
Another, more permanent solution is bonding. By applying a layer of composite resin to any exposed tooth roots, your dentist can give you more long-term relief from the pain of sensitive teeth. The resin is tooth-coloured, so it blends in.
In more extreme cases where the gums are severely eroded, your dentist may recommend a surgical gum graft. This protects the tooth roots.
Get to the Root of Your Tooth Sensitivity
Tooth sensitivity causes and effective treatments can vary greatly between individuals, so it’s crucial that you get a proper diagnosis from your dentist. If you don’t want the condition to get worse, you need to get to the real root of the problem and not just treat the symptoms—and that’s where your dental health professionals at Princeview Dental Group come in.
Remember: it’s crucial to schedule your regular check-ups and cleaning in addition to performing at-home prevention and treatment of sensitive teeth. Located in the heart of The Kingsway neighbourhood, we provide dental emergency care, routine dental care, periodontal maintenance and cleaning services, and more. Contact us today to learn more!