When to take tooth sensitivity seriously

Roughly 45 million Americans experience tooth sensitivity at some point in their lives. Are sensitive teeth just uncomfortable, or are they a sign of something more serious?

Woman with toothache

Tooth sensitivity, aka dentin hypersensitivity, is one of the most common complaints among dental patients, says the Academy of General Dentistry, and can range from a mild tingly sensation to a flash of intense pain. It can come and go depending on what you eat or drink, or it can be ever-present.

Understanding tooth sensitivity

The outer surface of the tooth, the enamel, protects the inner tooth surface known as the dentin. The dentin houses pores (or tubes) which run directly to the sensitive tooth nerves. Individuals with sensitive teeth experience discomfort when a hot, cold, sour or sweet food or beverage, or even cold air, enters the exposed tubules and aggravates the nerves.

Why teeth become sensitive

There are a number of possible causes for sensitive teeth:

  • Enamel wear and dentin exposure caused by acidic foods/beverages
  • Gum recession or gum disease
  • Cavities, tooth decay or abscess
  • Grinding of the teeth
  • Brushing too hard
  • Aging
  • Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia
  • Teeth whitening products
  • Dental treatments such as cleanings, crowns, tooth restorations, orthodontics and root canals
  • Chipped or fractured tooth
  • Root nerve damage

Tooth sensitivity “is an under-appreciated problem that might have serious consequences depending on the cause,” says Dr Michael Wald. “Interestingly, heart disease and gastrointestinal disease, hormonal imbalances, chronic inflammation and other ‘hidden diseases’ might manifest as tooth sensitivity.

Reducing tooth sensitivity

Since there are so many causes of tooth sensitivity, it’s best to see a dentist to determine the cause. The dentist will examine your teeth and test for sensitivity using an air spray gun to locate the source(s) of the sensitivity. Once it’s established that your tooth sensitivity isn’t indicative of a more serious problem, your dentist can help you manage the condition.

For low to moderate levels of sensitivity, over-the-counter products can make the root nerve less sensitive or build a protective coating to cover the sensitive tooth surface:

  • Practice proper brushing and flossing techniques
  • Brush with a soft-bristled toothbrush
  • Use desensitizing toothpaste
  • Use fluoridated mouthwash
  • Maintain a healthy diet, avoiding high-acid foods and beverages
  • Invest in a mouthguard if you grind your teeth at night

If the sensitivity continues in spite of your best efforts, or if you have a more intense level of overall sensitivity, your dentist may apply an in-office desensitizer which provides relief for months or years. The dentist can cover the exposed dentin and root surfaces with bonding (white fillings), a fluoride varnish or dental sealer.

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