Sensitive teeth cause pain in response to external stimuli such as cold, hot, acidic, or sweet food and drinks. The pain is sudden and sharp and can range from dull to severe pain. If you have sensitive teeth, drinking an ice-cold lemonade or a steaming coffee, or eating a chocolate cake is not a pleasure but rather a pain. Sensitive teeth are a symptom of many dental problems such as the erosion of tooth enamel, dental caries, a cracked or chipped tooth, a broken tooth filling, and gum disease. In recent years, researchers linked sensitive teeth to the over-consumption of acidic drinks and unsupervised use of teeth whitening products.
How Sensitive Teeth Can Occur
To understand how sensitive teeth can occur, you should know the structure of the tooth. Tooth enamel is the outer layer of the tooth. It protects and covers the tooth crown, the visible part of the tooth which located above the gumline. The cementum is the layer that protects the tooth root (below the gumline). Underneath both enamel and cementum, there is the dentin. Dentin is the second layer of the tooth. It contains fine tubes, known as dentinal tubules. These dentinal tubules contain sensitive nerve endings and connect the outside of the tooth to the pulp (nerve tissues).
When the tooth loses its protective layer (enamel or cementum) because of enamel erosion or gum recession, the dentinal tubules become exposed. As a consequence, external stimuli such as hot and cold drinks reach the pulp (nerve tissues) inside the tooth, causing pain. The result is sensitive teeth.
What Causes Sensitive Teeth?
Sensitive teeth occur when the tooth loses its protective layer (enamel or cementum) and the dentinal tubules become exposed. The following circumstances are responsible for the loss of the protective layer and sensitive teeth:
- Brushing your teeth too hard or using a hard toothbrush.
- Over-consumption of acidic drinks such as citrus juice and carbonated soft drinks.
- Teeth grinding which may lead to the erosion of enamel.
- Receding gums which make your root surface exposed.
- Dental caries and cracked tooth or fillings.
- Unsupervised use of tooth whitening products.
- Medical conditions such as gastroesophageal reflex and bulimia.
Symptoms of Sensitive Teeth
Patients with sensitive teeth may complain from sharp, sudden pain in response to external stimuli, especially cold stimuli. The most common stimuli include:
- Hot, cold, sweet, acidic foods and drinks.
- Cold air.
- Toothbrushing and flossing.
- Scaling and root planing.
Sensitive Teeth Treatment
The treatment of sensitive teeth depends on the underlying cause. First, you should visit your dentist as soon as possible to determine the underlying cause:
- Dental caries,
- Gum disease,
- Teeth grinding,
- Improper toothbrushing,
- Or other dental problems.
Then, depending on the underlying cause, your dentist may recommend:
- Proper tooth brushing technique: follow the right toothbrushing technique to relieve tooth sensitivity. Also, use a soft-bristled toothbrush and don’t exert too much force during brushing.
- Desensitizing toothpaste: there are special kinds of toothpaste for sensitive teeth. Ask your dentist about the best toothpaste to use.
- Fluoride gel or varnish: the fluoride gel or varnish hardens the tooth enamel and reduce the sensitivity. Also, you can use fluoride rinse for sensitive teeth.
- Tooth fillings: if dental caries is the trigger, the dentist will remove dental caries and place amalgam or tooth-colored fillings. Also, he/she will replace broken tooth fillings.
- Scaling and root planing: in the case of mild gum recession, your dentist may perform a scaling and root planing to clean the affected area. Also, he/she may prescribe an antibiotic to get rid of any remaining harmful bacteria.
- Bonding resin or dental crown: if exposed root surfaces are the trigger, the dentist may cover them with a bonding resin or cover the tooth with a dental crown.
- Gum graft: in the case of severe gum recession, surgical gum graft can help. The dentist takes a gum graft from the palate. Then, he/she attaches the graft to the area of exposed root. Surgical gum graft not only reduces tooth sensitivity but also improves the aesthetics.
- Root canal treatment: in the case of severe tooth sensitivity, the dentist may perform a root canal treatment to eliminate the pain.
Prevention of Sensitive Teeth
To prevent tooth sensitivity, you should:
- Follow the right tooth brushing technique and use a toothbrush with soft bristles.
- Use a fluoride toothpaste to strengthen the tooth enamel.
- Avoid acidic foods and drinks.
- Consult your dentist before the use of tooth-whitening products.
- Use a night guard if you have teeth grinding.
- Visit your dentist regularly for professional cleaning and to treat existing dental conditions such as dental caries and gum disease.