Have you ever winced with sudden pain after gulping an icy beverage or slurping a spoonful of hot soup? If so, you're likely one of the 40 million Americans the Academy of General Dentistry estimates experience tooth sensitivity each year.
What causes tooth sensitivity?
Tooth sensitivity (i.e., dentin hypersensitivity) occurs when tooth enamel wears away, leaving the dentin exposed. This soft, inner part of your tooth houses thousands of microscopic channels that, when left unprotected, allow stimuli to reach the nerves causing pain.
Some people naturally have more sensitive teeth due to having thinner enamel. However, in many cases, tooth enamel can be worn down from:
- Brushing your teeth too hard
- Using a hard-bristled toothbrush
- Grinding your teeth
- Regularly eating or drinking acidic foods and beverages
Anything that leaves sections of the tooth exposed and unprotected can lead to sensitivity. This includes gum recession, tooth decay, and broken or chipped teeth. Temporary sensitivity may also occur after dental work like fillings, crowns, or teeth bleaching. There are also medical conditions that can lead to tooth sensitivity. For example, gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) can cause acid to come up from the stomach and esophagus, which deteriorate tooth enamel over time. Similarly, conditions that cause frequent vomiting, such as gastroparesis and bulimia, can result in acid erosion.
Symptoms of tooth sensitivity
Tooth sensitivity can cause temporary or chronic pain in a single tooth, several teeth, or throughout your mouth. If you have sensitive teeth, everyday foods and drinks can unexpectedly trigger a jolt of nerve pain. It's common for people with sensitive teeth to experience pain or discomfort at the roots of the affected teeth in response to certain triggers, such as:
- Hot or cold foods and beverages
- Cold air
- Sweet foods and beverages
- Acidic foods and beverages
- Cold water, especially during routine dental cleanings
- Brushing or flossing teeth
- Alcohol-based mouth rinses
Symptoms can range from mild to intense and may come and go periodically for no apparent reason.
How is tooth sensitivity treated?
There are several at-home and in-office treatments that can provide relief to sensitive teeth. Depending on the cause and severity the sensitivity, your dentist will likely recommend one or more of the following treatments:
- Desensitizing toothpaste – These contain compounds that help block the transmission of sensation from the tooth surface to the nerve. For best results, use twice a day with a soft-bristled toothbrush. Desensitizing toothpaste can also be applied directly to sensitive areas.
- Fluoride mouth rinse – Fluoride re-mineralizes tooth enamel, making teeth harder and stronger, which helps to prevent sensitivity and tooth decay.
- In-office fluoride treatment – Professional fluoride treatments come in several forms, such as gels, varnishes, foam, and highly concentrated rinses. While they work similarly to over-the-counter products, professional-grade treatments have a much higher fluoride concentration and may be recommended every three, six, or twelve months.
- A crown, inlay, or bonding – Your dentist may use these methods to correct chipped or broken teeth that are causing sensitivity.
- Surgical gum graft – When loss of gum tissue leaves your tooth root exposed, a graft takes a small amount of gum tissue from elsewhere in your mouth and attaches it to the affected site. This can protect exposed roots and reduce sensitivity.
- Root canal - If severe sensitivity is unable to be treated by other means, your dentist may recommend this procedure, which treats problems in the tooth's soft core.
While tooth sensitivity is not uncommon, pain can be an indication of a more serious dental problem. If you're experiencing sensitivity, please call our office. We'll evaluate your specific symptoms and determine the best treatment to help relieve the pain.