Your Guide to Understanding Tooth Sensitivity Causes and Treatments
You may have experienced a sharp pain in one or more of your teeth after taking a sip of your favourite cold drink or a hot cup of coffee. Or perhaps you walked outside on a brisk, cold morning for a walk and your first deep breath caused an immediate toothache. If this sounds familiar, you may have what are known as sensitive teeth.
Tooth sensitivity is extremely common and can occur for a wide variety of reasons. While it’s not a pleasant experience, there are many ways that tooth sensitivity can be treated and minimized to reduce the associated pain and discomfort. In this article, we will explain exactly what sensitive teeth are, how they are caused, and what steps you can take to treat your sensitive teeth.
What are sensitive teeth?
In general, sensitive teeth cause pain or discomfort as a result of coming in to contact with something that causes a sudden rise or drop in temperature, such as a hot or cold drink, or something that affects the chemical balance of the mouth and your saliva, such as a sugary or sour food. People with sensitive teeth commonly experience discomfort during parts of their regular daily routine, such as brushing their teeth, as well as something as simple as breathing in cold air through the mouth on a chilly winter day.
There is nothing visually apparent about teeth that can indicate sensitivity, so don’t expect to look in your mouth and clearly see a reason why your teeth may be hurting. Tooth sensitivity occurs in otherwise healthy teeth, and unlike things like tooth decay or cavities, the underlying causes don’t always make themselves visible on your teeth.
The pain itself is the result of a rapid change in temperature or chemical changes in your mouth to come in contact with the dentin material that comprises the majority of your teeth. The dentin is filled with microscopic channels that lead to the root and nerve within your tooth, which is normally protected from such rapid changes by the hard coating of enamel on the outer layer of your teeth. For example, when the shock of an ice-cold drink hits the dentin, it carries that cold quickly to the nerve in your tooth, which responds with a painful sensation.
What causes teeth to become sensitive?
While some people are unfortunately prone to sensitive teeth for hereditary reasons, there are also several ways that teeth can become more sensitive over time, many of which are preventable. The main cause of teeth becoming more sensitive is the loss or erosion of the hard, protective enamel of your teeth. This enamel, although extremely tough, is not impervious and can be damaged or worn down over time due to several different causes.
The most common ways that enamel becomes damaged or worn is through physical means, such as grinding teeth or overly aggressive tooth brushing with a highly abrasive toothpaste, or through chemical factors such as frequent ingestion of acidic food and drink, such as sugary sodas and juices. As the enamel becomes worn down from these factors, the layer protecting the inner dentin becomes thinner and more likely to result in tooth sensitivity.
Other causes of tooth sensitivity can include gum disease or gum recession, which causes more parts of the teeth to become exposed to the environment of the mouth and can result in increased likelihood of sensitivity. In these cases, treatment of the underlying cause of the gum recession is necessary, and often results in an improved level of comfort related to tooth sensitivity. Some people also report instances of sensitivity in teeth following some surgical dental procedures, although these particular situations are often only temporary.
What are the treatments for sensitive teeth?
When it comes to discussing treatment for sensitive teeth, it’s critical that patients understand that there is no way to re-grow or replace the enamel of your teeth. Once the enamel wears away, it’s permanently gone. It is for this reason that the absolute best way to treat sensitive teeth is to prevent the enamel from thinning or becoming worn, and this is done with proper oral care habits, regular dental checkups and hygiene treatments, as well as a sensible diet that avoids excess of acidic foods.
In cases where the enamel wear is due to tooth grinding, a special mouth guard may be recommended for patients to wear when they sleep. This is recommended in order to prevent further grinding of the teeth and reduce the rate of wear on the enamel.
However, even with a dedication to these preventive measures, some people are simply more likely to develop sensitive teeth over time, and they need additional support and treatment to reduce the pain and discomfort they experience. The most basic form of treatment for sensitive teeth is by using a specialized toothpaste, which contains ingredients such as potassium nitrate, stannous fluoride, or strontium chloride. These ingredients act essentially as ‘plugs’ for the microscopic channels in your teeth and prevent the inner nerve of the tooth from being affected as dramatically by temperature changes as well as certain foods and drink.
The ingredients in these specialized toothpastes are not a permanent solution, and will wear off over time, but they are also cumulative. This means that the more often you use them, the better they will work. In general, it takes anywhere from 2 weeks to 1 month of normal, regular use for sensitivity toothpastes to perform as indicated.
In some of the more severe cases, where the cause of sensitivity is determined to be related to gum disease or advanced gum recession, it’s possible that the damage may be too extensive to be managed with common sensitivity treatments. In these cases, it may be necessary to undergo procedures such as dental crowns or dental implants to return the mouth to a healthy and comfortable state. Your dentist will recommend the best course of action after a thorough examination and all options have been considered.
Tooth sensitivity is a common problem that many people experience, and yet all too often it gets ignored or discounted as not a serious problem, only to become more troublesome as time goes on. If you begin to experience recurring instances of tooth sensitivity, it is highly recommended that you discuss your concerns with your dentist as soon as possible. Minor issues can progress to major ones if left unchecked and untreated, so take the initiative and find out what’s causing your sensitivity.
It may be something simple that can be treated and mitigated with some popular oral care products and some minor changes to your diet. Or, if the sensitivity is due to an underlying dental health issue, it’s far better to take care of it early in order to stave off more serious problems further down the road. As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so talk to your dentist about your experiences with tooth sensitivity and start down the path to greater comfort for your teeth.
Contact us today to arrange a free, no-obligation consultation to discuss your sensitive teeth, and learn what your next steps should be.