If you’ve ever experienced tooth sensitivity, then you’re well aware of its symptoms. You bite into some freezing-cold ice cream or knock back some soda, and suddenly you’re wracked with tooth pain.
If you experience this on a rare or frequent basis, you’re most certainly not alone. The Academy of General Dentistry estimates that as many as 40 million U.S. adults experience tooth sensitivity at one point or another. On the outside of each tooth is a protective layer of enamel. Over time, the enamel can wear away leaving an inner layer, called the dentin, exposed. This occurs due to normal wear and tear, poor dental hygiene or certain lifestyle choices. Dentin contains fluid-filled tubules that reach into the innermost part of the tooth where all the nerves reside. Because the nerves inside the tooth are exposed when the enamel is eroded away, sensitivity is the result. Another form of tooth sensitivity develops when gum recession leaves the root of the tooth exposed to food, drink, and air.
The primary triggers of tooth sensitivity are consuming acidic, cold, hot, sour, or sweet foods and drinks, breathing cold air, and/or brushing or flossing already sensitive teeth. Most commonly, symptoms manifest as a sudden, sharp, and sometimes deep pain in a tooth that then goes away. What many people with tooth sensitivity don’t realize is why they experience this pain in the first place. That knowledge is essential if you want to get to the root of your tooth sensitivity and identify a viable solution.
The root cause of most tooth sensitivity is the loss of a protective covering around a tooth’s dentin or the material that composes most of the inside of each tooth. Dentin is typically protected by enamel (the outer covering of each tooth), cementum (which protects the tooth root under the gum line), and the gums (which further help protect the root of the tooth), but a number of issues can erode this protective layer. When that happens, heat, cold, acidity, and so on can penetrate into the cells and nerves of the tooth, thereby provoking sensitivity.
A number of factors can contribute to enamel loss, while others may account for additional causes of tooth sensitivity. These include the following:
Using a hard-bristled toothbrush and/or brushing aggressively can wear down tooth enamel. Brushing too hard can also provoke gum recession, which exposes the root of the tooth and may provoke sensitivity.
Consuming acidic and/or sugary foods and beverages—such as soda, coffee, tomato sauce, candy, refined carbohydrates, and citrus fruits—can erode tooth enamel, thereby making the dentin more vulnerable.
Just as acidic foods can wear down tooth enamel, so too can acidic mouthwashes. Long-term use of an acidic mouthwash (such as those containing alcohol or other harsh chemicals) can worsen existing sensitivity.
Grinding or clenching your teeth on a regular basis (whether at night or during the day) can gradually wear down tooth enamel, leaving the dentin less protected.
Gum diseases such as gingivitis and periodontal disease typically provoke gum inflammation and/or recession, which can expose the roots of teeth and cause sensitivity.
Tooth-whitening products are common culprits of tooth sensitivity. That’s because some of the whitening chemicals added to these products are tough on tooth enamel and can wear it down over time.
A chipped or broken tooth is vulnerable to bacteria, which can travel through the crack into the tooth’s dentin and cause pain or sensitivity.
Routine dental procedures such as professional cleanings, crown placements, fillings, and tooth restorations may provoke tooth sensitivity. The good news is this type of sensitivity is typically temporary and goes away on its own over the course of a few weeks.
No matter the cause of your tooth sensitivity, the first step in treating it is to consult your dentist. They will help you get to the bottom of what’s causing your sensitivity and come up with a treatment plan that works for you.
Sensitive teeth can range from mildly annoying to severely painful. To prevent further damage to your teeth or any sensitivity in the first place, follow the suggestions below: