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Understanding Sensitive Teeth

Individuals with sensitive teeth will feel a sharp jolt of pain in response to certain triggers. The pain is usually short-lived, but it is annoying. The pain can affect one tooth or multiple teeth. When the sensitivity comes on suddenly, it could be a sign that there is something wrong with one or more teeth. In that case it’s best to connect with your dentist right away.

Common sensitivity triggers include:

  • Hot or cold foods
  • Hot or cold beverages
  • Foods or beverages with a high acid content
  • Sweet foods and drinks
  • Cold air
  • Some people also notice their teeth feel sensitive when they are brushing them.

It helps to learn the anatomy of a tooth to understand teeth sensitivity. Thin, eroded, or damaged tooth enamel, or exposed roots, causes sensitivity. Very hard enamel covers a tooth’s crown. It is the hardest, most durable substance in the human body. If the enamel isn’t worn or damaged, it keeps all pain triggers away from the tooth’s nerves which reside in the pulp, the innermost layer of the tooth. Between the enamel and pulp is dentin. Dentin contains microscopic tubules which connect to the pulp. If the enamel isn’t intact and strong, sensitivity triggers reach the dentin and then the tooth’s nerves. When gums recede, stimuli can also reach the dentin as there is no enamel covering the roots of teeth.

Encountering teeth sensitivity can limit your food and beverage choices, besides signaling that something is amiss. While you will want to visit your dentist to find the root cause, there are remedies that can be applied at home first. Once he or she discovers the cause and recommends a treatment, you can go back to having that steaming cup of coffee or bowl of ice cream.

Sensitive Teeth Causes

  1. Using a Hard Toothbrush – Use only soft toothbrushes and brush gently. A hard toothbrush can wear down tooth enamel. There are many options for soft-bristled tooth brushes that are also ADA approved.
  2. Tooth Decay – Decay produces an acid that slowly dissolves tooth enamel, causing cavities. The hole allows stimuli, like heat and cold, to reach the dentin and irritate the nerve in the tooth’s pulp.
  3. Damaged Teeth or Damaged Fillings – A tooth with a crack, a chip or a damaged filling can allow stimuli to get under the enamel and reach the dentin.
  4. Teeth Whitening Products – Teeth whitening toothpastes, strips, mouthwashes and other products you can buy in stores can cause teeth sensitivity. This is especially true if you use the product more often than directed. Low quality products that don’t bear the American Dental Association’s Seal of Acceptance can also contain harsh chemicals that will cause sensitivity, even if you use them as directed.
  5. Alcohol-based Mouthwashes – Mouthwashes containing alcohol can make your teeth sensitive if you use one on regularly. Switch to a neutral mouthwash or skip it altogether.
  6. Eating an Acidic Diet- Highly acidic foods can dissolve tooth enamel. You can still enjoy soft drinks, wine, citrus products and more, but you need to eat a balanced diet that contains low acid foods too, like beans, fresh vegetable, milk and more. If drinking acidic beverages, use a straw to prevent the substance from sticking to your teeth.
  7. Grinding Your Teeth – If you have a habit of grinding your teeth while you sleep (bruxism), it can wear down your tooth enamel. Grinding, gnashing or clenching your teeth at night can also damage fillings and crowns, leading to localized tooth sensitivity.
  8. Receding Gums – Gums can recede with age or if you are too rough brushing at the gumline, but the main reason is gum disease.
  9. Genetics – Some people have naturally weak enamel because of their genes. Sometimes, it is also the result of medications a child took at a young age or medications a mother took while pregnant. Poor childhood nutrition also can cause a person to have weak enamel.

What Can I Do to Fix My Tooth Sensitivity?

Seeing your dentist is a good start, especially if one tooth suddenly becomes sensitive. This can mean you have a cavity, a hairline fracture of a chip that needs repair. Your dentist can restore the damaged tooth with a filling, bonding or a crown.

If you grind your teeth at night, talk to your dentist about a customized nightguard. You wear it while you sleep and it protects your tooth enamel from additional wear. Also, you’ll want to work on the reasons for your habit, which is typically stress or too many stimulants, like caffeine, before retiring.

If you notice your gums receding and your teeth looking longer, see your dentist. He or she can see if you have gum disease and treat the infection. In serious cases of lost gum tissue, your dentist may suggest a gum graft to replace the lost tissue.

Watch your intake of highly acidic foods and drinks. These include:

  • Soft drinks
  • Sports drinks
  • Wine
  • Citrus fruits and juices
  • Sour candies
  • Tomato products
  • Pickled products

If you have an acidic drink, use a straw. Rinse your mouth with water afterward. Eat acidic foods with meals. Meals stimulate saliva production and saliva will help neutralize the acid.

Ask your dentist about a fluoride treatment if you have thinning enamel. The in-office treatment can help restore your enamel and reduce sensitivity. There are other in-office treatments that may be helpful as well.

What’s the Best Way to Prevent Teeth Sensitivity?

The best way to prevent teeth sensitivity is to take good care of your teeth. You must practice good oral hygiene in order to avoid common problems like tooth sensitivity and cavities. Dentists recommend brushing at least twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste and a soft-bristled toothbrush. Please also remember to floss daily. Most importantly, see a dentist every six months for a routine checkup so you can catch any problems early while they are painless to fix.

Don’t ignore teeth sensitivity. You don’t have to live with it anymore as there are plenty of solutions available from the dentist. Your dentist can help you find a solution that will have you enjoying your favorite hot and cold foods and drinks once again.

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