Common medical questions and answers through blogs and articles

What Causes Tooth Sensitivity?

Perhaps you’ve been noticing lately that downing an ice-cold glass of milk leaves you reeling in pain … then it seems that wincing with your mouth open causes your teeth to hurt.  Tooth sensitivity just didn’t happen overnight it is a gradual process that begins when the movement of fluid located within tiny tubes in the dentin (the layer of tissue found beneath the hard enamel that contains the inner pulp of the tooth),  begins to cause nerve irritation.  When the hard enamel on your teeth gradually begins to wear down, especially as you get older, or your gums start to recede, these tiny tube surfaces are then exposed causing you to wince after eating, drinking hot or cold beverages, touching your teeth, or even just exposing them to cold air – suddenly a short, sharp pain and aching thereafter occurs.

Sadly, the exposed areas of the tooth soon begin to not only cause you pain, but even affect your eating, drinking, and breathing habits.  Sensitive teeth can be affected by a wide variety of causes, in addition to the wearing down of tooth enamel, among them an excessive consumption of acid-containing foods and beverages, such as citrus juices and fruits, and a big culprit – soft drinks, all which will put you at risk for tooth sensitivity.  Persons who suffer from acid reflex, or are bulimic, experience acid in the mouth, which, over time, begins to slowly erode the tooth’s hard enamel, exposing the teeth to extreme sensitivity.

 Does this happen to everyone?

Yes and no – you might be relieved at the conclusion of a routine dental appointment, when your dentist tells you that your painful tooth sensation is merely tooth sensitivity and not a malady involving extraction or some other protracted dental procedure.  But tooth sensitivity is nothing to just disregard and consider trifling either.  It is painful and uncomfortable and is one of the most common complaints among dental patients.  You are not alone, at least 40 million adults in the United States suffer at some time in their life from tooth sensitivity!

Avoid tooth sensitivity

Sensitivity, as a result of age, and hard tooth enamel erosion through the years, is just a fact of life.  But, there are some ways of being proactive and taking care of your teeth through the years to try to prevent this malady from occurring.

Among the ways to preserve the hard enamel on your teeth is to be mindful of always trying to protect your teeth.  This just doesn’t mean athletes who must use mouth gear for sports-related injuries that may involve the face or mouth, but being careful when brushing your teeth.  Ensuring that your teeth are clean is one thing, but vigorous scrubbing, especially with a hard-bristled toothbrush, will help to keep your teeth plaque free, but also will scrub that good, hard enamel away over time.  If you go through toothbrushes like wildfire, or the bristles are every which way just a few days after changing toothbrushes, you are brushing your teeth way too hard.

Some people prefer to apply a baking soda and water paste to a toothbrush to help keep the plaque at bay.  This is fine for occasional use, but, on a regular basis, baking soda is very abrasive to your teeth and will quickly wear down the enamel.

Likewise, your dentist may give you a sample of tartar control toothpaste when you have a regular check-up.  He or she may recommend you use it to keep your teeth plaque free as much as possible between hygienist visits.  But, do note that some of these plaque-controlling toothpastes contain abrasive ingredients that will wear down precious tooth enamel and may be too harsh for people who have some sensitivity in their teeth already.  There are also ingredients found in some whitening toothpastes that will help to lighten and/or remove certain stains from tooth enamel, and this ingredient, sodium pyrophosphate, may not only erode the enamel in your teeth, but may increase tooth sensitivity.

The key is to preserve the enamel on your teeth for as many years as possible … think how hard your teeth have worked for you all these years.  You really need to treat them with a little TLC!

Is there a remedy?

Your dentist will no doubt recommend you eliminate any triggers that cause dentin hypersensitivity (a/k/a tooth sensitivity).  As mentioned earlier, you should eliminate any and all sources of irritation, such as acidic foods and change your dental hygiene habits like brushing forcefully to cause undue abrasion to your tooth enamel.  The better solution might be daily fluoride application (a rinse or brush-on gel), but, the easiest method to combat dentin hypersensitivity, and reduce its symptoms, is simply by switching to an over-the-counter desensitizing toothpaste.  Toothpaste for sensitive teeth comes in a gel or paste, depending on the brand, and usually contains a desensitizing agent (potassium nitrate or strontium chloride) that protects the exposed dentin by blocking the tubes in the teeth that are connected to nerves, or, alternatively your dentist might prescribe a stannous fluoride gel.  You  might even wish to massage the desensitizing product onto your gums with your finger after brushing.  Bear in mind, however, that you should not despair if the desensitizing toothpaste doesn’t work right away; in most cases, it will take up to a month for any therapeutic benefits to be noticed, even when used on a regular basis.

Additionally, you might also ask your dentist to apply a sealant, or other type of desensitizing and filling material, protective coatings will block transmission of sensation from the outside of the tooth to the nerve.  It depends on the degree of sensitivity in the teeth as to which remedy best will suit your needs, since all patients are different and do not benefit from the same treatment regimen.

If a particular tooth has been suddenly sensitive for more than three or four days, you might want to schedule an appointment for a diagnostic evaluation soon, because sometimes pain symptoms may be presumed to just be tooth sensitivity, when in fact it might be a cavity or abscess that is not yet visible.  If in doubt, call for an appointment with a family dentist.

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