If eating or drinking something hot or cold—or simply touching your teeth—causes you to wince in pain, you’re not alone. Two out of five adults experience discomfort from sensitive teeth at some time or another, from a sharp jab to an excruciating jolt.
Depending on the root cause, though, there are things you and your dentist can do to reduce this sensitivity and ease the pain.
There are a number of reasons why you may have sensitive teeth. The most common cause is exposure of the tooth’s dentin—a bonelike material that makes up the bulk of the tooth.
A tooth has the capacity to alert the brain of possible danger to it from the outer environment. If the dentin, which is normally covered by either enamel, cementum (the surface layer of a tooth root) or gum tissue, encounters temperature extremes or excessive pressure, it transmits these sensations through tiny tubules to nerves located in the pulp, the soft inner core of the tooth.
Besides being the tooth’s first line of protection, enamel, cementum and the gums also “muffle” the sensations the dentin may encounter so as not to over-stimulate it. If, however, the dentin becomes exposed from beneath the protection of the enamel, cementum or the gums, it may begin transmitting pain signals for more moderate temperature or pressure changes. The teeth then become over-sensitized to otherwise normal environmental stimuli.
Enamel can erode if the mouth is consistently too acidic, from constant snacking on acidic foods and beverages or as a byproduct of bacterial growth. Acid softens and ultimately dissolves minerals that give enamel its strength. The gums can also erode or pull away from the teeth, a process called gum recession, which usually happens from over-aggressive brushing (too frequently or too hard) or as a consequence of periodontal (gum) disease. The thin cementum surface that covers the root can wear away from brushing or, sometimes at the junction where enamel meets the cementum of the root surface, small openings exist exposing the inner dentin to the outside environment.
Depending on the source of the sensitivity, there are some things you can do to help reduce painful sensitivity.
To strengthen enamel, use toothpaste and other hygiene products that contain fluoride. Numerous studies have shown this naturally occurring mineral strengthens tooth enamel, and will reduce sensitivity to varying degrees as well. You can also apply fluoride toothpaste as an ointment to give it more contact time on the teeth. Potassium has been touted as a sensitivity-reducer for teeth, although the results among numerous studies have been varied. You may increase its effectiveness if used in combination with fluoride.
In the case of gum recession caused by over-aggressive brushing, you should relax your brushing technique. The main goal of brushing (and flossing) is to remove bacterial plaque from tooth surfaces to reduce the risk of tooth decay or gum disease, which can be accomplished with a gentle action using a soft-bristled brush. If you have one tooth in particular that’s sensitive, you might try not brushing it for a few days (but only a few days) and see if the symptoms subside. Your dentist can also provide training on the proper method for brushing and flossing.
And speaking of oral hygiene, it’s your main defense against developing the other common cause of gum recession: gum disease. Daily brushing and flossing reduces the level of bacteria that causes gum disease and the infection that damages gum tissues.
There are a number of treatments your dentist can offer that may reduce sensitivity. Treating the root causes of dental disease is probably the most important of these.
To stop gum disease, your dentist must aggressively remove bacterial plaque and calculus (hardened deposits of plaque) from teeth, gum and root surfaces. Plaque is acidic and that increases sensitivity. Treating the disease reduces inflammation and allows for the gum tissues to heal. This may result in a short-term increase in sensitivity but the cleaned root surface will allow professionally applied fluoride varnish to help seal the dentin tubules and in a short time(a few weeks), reduce the sensitivity to normal levels.
Treating tooth decay may also help lessen sensitivity: After removing decayed tooth structure, the dentist repairs the teeth by placing fillings and/ or bonding dental materials to seal areas of exposed dentin. For decay deep within the tooth, a root canal treatment may be needed to clean out the tooth’s pulp chamber and root canals and fill them to prevent further infection. Your dentist can also apply barriers to your teeth like fluoride varnishes, sealants or temporary linings after decay removal, which cover dentin or add extra protection to enamel.
Surgical intervention may be needed in cases of extreme sensitivity at the root level from severe cases of gum recession. This may require periodontal (gum) surgery to cover the root surface.
Tooth sensitivity can be more than an annoyance—it can diminish your quality of life, from depriving you of favorite foods to causing chronic pain.
There are ways, though, for you to reduce your pain or even relieve it altogether. By uncovering the true cause of your sensitivity, you and your dentist can take steps to overcome it and improve your oral health too.
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