It comes as such a terrible surprise any time you get a shooting pain in one of your teeth! Has this happened to you? Was it a cold beverage? Or maybe a sweet treat? The pain is sudden, and luckily temporary, but can still be pretty unsettling.
Fortunately, sensitive teeth can be treated, and the condition can improve.
Why do my teeth become sensitive?
Hang in there for a quick tooth anatomy lesson — I promise everything else will make more sense if you understand the different layers of your teeth.
In a healthy tooth, enamel protects the underlying layer of dentin as well as your tooth’s roots. Enamel is one of the strongest substances in your body, but it can wear away over time, especially in the presence of poor dental hygiene.
When the enamel wears away, it leaves the layer of dentin exposed. Dentin is porous and contains thousands of microscopic tubules (think of them as little garden hoses), that lead to the tooth’s pulp. These dentinal “hoses” have a specific liquid concentration and when that liquid concentration changes it causes the nerve in the pulp to fire, causing pain. The liquid concentration can be affected by temperature and concentration changes – think hot, cold, acidic, sweets, etc.
The following all cause the dentin to be exposed:
- Cavities: Cavities (or holes in teeth due to bacteria) are probably the number one reason people experience tooth sensitivity. If the bacteria has made it’s way through your tooth to the dentin (or worse, the root), you will have sensitivity.
- Solution: Seeing your dentist at least twice a year will mean that large cavities that cause sensitivity shouldn’t sneak up on you. Of course, an excellent oral hygiene routine makes a big difference as well.
- Brushing too hard or using a hard-bristled toothbrush: Forceful brushing and hard bristles can wear down your enamel, causing the dentin to become exposed and encourage gum recession.
- Solution: Always use a soft toothbrush! Better yet, get an electric toothbrush (most of them now tell you when you’re brushing too hard, so there’s no guessing if you’re doing it right!). Remember, you don’t need to scrub your teeth like you would scrub the floor. Getting your teeth clean has nothing to do with force. Instead, brushing your teeth gently in a circular motion for a full 2 minutes will both clean and protect your teeth.
- OR – Throw away the manual toothbrush and get an electric toothbrush. Most of these new electric toothbrushes tell you if you are brushing too hard – now you don’t have to guess if you are brushing too hard.
- A broken or lost filling: If a filling pops out or becomes cracked, the resulting empty space is a direct route to the dentin or the nerve, which will cause sensitivity. If the seal (adhesive) for the filling has broken down, it can lead to decay that can result in tooth sensitivity.
- Solution: Don’t wait to get a filling replaced if it breaks or cracks. If you notice sensitivity in a tooth with a filling, it’s a sign that something may be wrong — see your dentist.
- Gum recession: Gum recession often happens in people suffering from periodontal disease, which exposes the dentin.
- Solution: Get screened for periodontal disease. It’s something we do on a routine basis for all of our patients. Often new patients won’t have been appropriately screened by their previous dentist, and we have to intervene.
- Gingivitis: Inflamed and sore gum tissue can result in the exposure of the tooth’s root.
- Solution: Brushing and flossing regularly in addition to seeing your dentist twice a year should keep your gums in good shape.
- Cracked teeth: These can become filled with bacteria from plaque and cause inflammation in the pulp of the tooth. In more severe cases, it may lead to abscess and infection.
- Solution: If you have a cracked tooth, you MUST see your dentist right away. Don’t risk the long list of issues that arise from leaving a cracked tooth unattended. Just because it doesn’t hurt (yet) doesn’t mean it doesn’t need immediate attention! A cracked tooth often results in a lost tooth if left untreated. That’s right — we mean it might have to be pulled, so don’t wait!
- Teeth grinding or clenching: The pressure from clenching and grinding wears down the enamel, leaving the dentin exposed. Typically this will result in cold sensitivity.
- Solution: Get a custom made night guard that is comfortable for you to wear at night and WEAR IT!
- Plaque buildup: Not keeping up on good oral hygiene routine or missing dental cleanings can allow plaque to build up in your mouth. That plaque eats away at your enamel, exposing the dentin and leaving you at risk for sensitivity.
- Solution: Good oral hygiene and regular visits to your favorite dentist should do the trick (hint: if you’re in Cincinnati, Anderson Dental Care is the place to go! ). If you build up plaque quickly, consider coming in for an extra cleaning or two a year to stay ahead of the problem.
- Consuming highly acidic foods: Drinking lot’s of soda, wine, or sports drinks or eating sugary treats can encourage enamel reduction.
- Solution: If you are going to consume a sugary/acidic food or beverage, make sure you rinse with water and wait 30 minutes to brush. If you brush right away, you will be brushing the enamel right off your teeth!
How to treat sensitive teeth
Really, the only way to truly treat sensitive teeth is to see your dentist to determine the cause of the sensitivity, and then complete the recommended treatment. Until you’re able to see the dentist, avoid the foods or things causing the sensitivity. Chew on the other side and take care if you need to chew on that tooth. Rinse with warm water rinses to help alleviate some of the discomfort. If it’s sensitive to air, making the pain more frequent, you can try some orthodontic wax (often sold at drugstores) to cover the sensitive area temporarily.
You can also try brushing regularly with toothpaste specifically made for sensitive teeth. At Anderson Dental Care, we recommend Sensodyne or Prevident. Prevident is a prescription toothpaste you can purchase at our office or get at a pharmacy with a prescription. It has 5x the amount of fluoride as typical toothpaste and helps plug up the dentinal tubules or ‘hoses’ and make them less susceptible to temperature and concentration changes. The fluoride also inhibits bacterial growth.
Don’t ignore tooth sensitivity! It’s a red flag that something is wrong and needs attention. Call our Cincinnati dental office at 513-817-0834 or make an appointment online so together we can take care of the underlying issue.
If you’ve been putting off seeing a dentist due to cost, you’ll be happy to know that we provide an affordable alternative to paying out of pocket or carrying pricey dental insurance.
At Anderson Dental Care, we offer a PREMIER DENTAL CARE MEMBERSHIP, and our members save 20% on dental procedures and get anywhere from 2-4 maintenance cleanings a year. Packages start at $31/month.