Tooth sensitivity means that certain activities such as brushing, eating and drinking may cause sharp and temporary pain. In most cases, sensitive teeth result from worn out enamel but sometimes factors such as cavities, a recent filling, cracked or chipped teeth or a recent dental procedure, such as bleaching, may contribute to the pain.
Sensitive teeth can be severe and cause a toothache. Sensitivity can start at any time but it is most common in people of ages between 20 and 40. Statistics show that women are more likely to have tooth sensitivity than men are.
Causes of sensitive teeth
One of the most common causes of tooth sensitivity occurs when the gums pull back, exposing the tooth surface called dentine. Dentine is a soft layer that has thousands of tiny tubes that lead to the pulp – the tooth’s nerve centre. These tubes or channels allow triggers such as sweet, hot or cold foods, to reach the nerves and cause pain. Other causes include:
- Wear and tear caused by brushing too hard, using a hard toothbrush or frequent teeth grinding. All of these break down the enamel and expose the dentine to air and food.
- Gingivitis – a gum disease that inflames the gums and pull them back, exposing the roots.
- Tooth decay close to the gum line.
- Tooth damage (chipping or breakage) that fill the affected regions with bacteria. The bacteria may enter the pulp and cause inflammation.
- Teeth grinding – a habit that may wear the enamel down, exposing the dentine.
- Build-up of plaque near the root’s surface.
- Frequent use of teeth whitening products.
- Age, as you are likely to have sensitive teeth between ages 25 to 30.
- Acidic foods such as citrus fruits, tea, pickles and tomatoes as they contribute to enamel break down.
- Dental work such as teeth cleaning and bleaching, root planting, tooth restoration and crown placement. Sensitivity resulting from this is temporary and may last for up to 4-6 weeks only.
Self-care measures for tooth sensitivity
To improve or prevent teeth sensitivity, try the following self-care measures:
- Use toothpastes for sensitive teeth. Such toothpastes may take anywhere from a few days to several weeks to work. Talk to your dentist about the type of toothpaste that may work best for you.
- Avoid triggers such as hot, cold, acidic and sweet food and drinks. Use warm water if you experience sensitivity while brushing your teeth with cold tap water. Make sure you continue brushing and flossing your teeth regularly as not doing so can worsen teeth sensitivity.
- Use a soft-bristled toothbrush and brush gently around the gum line.
If self-care measures are ineffective even if carried out for a few weeks, seeing a dentist is important.
Treatment for Sensitive Teeth
The dentist will be able to identify any underlying causes of your tooth sensitivity. Depending on the cause, the dentist will recommend any of the following:
- Desensitizing toothpaste. Several applications of desensitizing toothpaste may help inhibit pain from sensitive teeth.
- Fluoride. The dentist will apply fluoride to affected areas to relieve pain and strengthen the enamel. Your dentist may prescribe using fluoride at home.
- Bonding. In some occasions, the dentist may apply a bonding resin to sensitive surfaces of the root. Numbing may be needed.
- Gum graft. Loss of gum tissue may require a surgical gum graft where a small amount of gum tissue is taken from another region of your mouth and applied to the affected part. This helps reduce sensitivity by protecting exposed roots.
- Root canal. A root canal treats problems associated with the dental pulp. If other treatments are not effective and your sensitive teeth cause severe pain, a root canal may be needed. A root canal is the most effective treatment for sensitive teeth.
Preventing Tooth Sensitivity
Your dentist may recommend the following steps (along with the self-care tips given above) to prevent teeth sensitivity from recurring:
- Brush your teeth at least twice a day, making sure it is the last thing you do in the night. Use fluoride toothpaste, especially designed for sensitive teeth. Use gentle circular motions with a soft bristled brush to brush your teeth. Avoid side-to-side brushing.
- Change your tooth brush at least every two to three months – sooner, if worn.
- Reduce consumption of cold, acidic, fizzy and sugary foods and drinks.
- If you have a teeth grinding habit, your dentist may recommend using a custom mouth guard in the night.