For millions of people, sensitive teeth can make life miserable. The pain and discomfort make even favorite hot or cold foods impossible to enjoy. All is not lost. In many cases, sensitive teeth can be successfully treated bringing long sought after relief.
Sensitive teeth (Dentin Hypersensitivity) are characterized by a tingling sensation or sharp shooting pain that occurs when you consume food or drink that is very cold, hot or sweet.
Is a taste of ice cream or a sip of hot coffee sometimes a painful experience for you? Does brushing or flossing make you wince occasionally? If so, you may have a common problem called “sensitive teeth.”
You are more likely to feel the sensitivity when drinking or eating something cold, from cold air catching your teeth, and sometimes with hot foods or drinks. Some people have sensitivity when they have sweet or acidic food and drink. The pain can come and go, with some times being worse than others.
The part of the tooth we can see is covered by a layer of enamel that protects the softer dentine underneath. If the dentine is exposed, a tooth can become sensitive. This usually happens where the tooth and the gum meet and the enamel layer is much thinner.
Symptoms of Sensitive Teeth
Both dentinal and pulpal sensitivity usually involve reactions to temperature or pressure. Sensitivity to cold drinks or foods is the most common symptom. Less often, the teeth are sensitive to hot temperatures. If a single tooth progresses from cold sensitivity to hot sensitivity, it may indicate that the tooth’s nerve is dying, and root canal treatment (endodontic therapy) is necessary. If single-tooth sensitivity continues for some time after the stimulus is gone, the tooth is more likely to require root canal treatment than if the sensitivity lasts only seconds.
Sensitive Teeth Treatment
Your dentist will look at your dental history and will examine your mouth. He or she will ask about your oral habits because grinding or clenching your teeth can contribute to sensitivity. Your dentist also will look for tooth decay, deep metal fillings and exposed root surfaces. He or she may use an explorer — a metal instrument with a sharp point — to test teeth for sensitivity.
Dentists have a variety of regimens to manage tooth hypersensitivity, including both in-office treatments and patient-applied products for home use. If you are diagnosed with dentin hypersensitivity, your dentist may apply a desensitizing agent or a protective coating.
You may be prescribed a stannous fluoride gel or an over-the-counter desensitizing toothpaste containing fluoride and either potassium nitrate or strontium chloride. These ingredients help block transmission of sensation from the tooth to the nerve. It also might help to massage the special paste onto your gums with your finger after brushing.
If you have one sensitive tooth and it has recently had a filling — either an amalgam filling or a bonded composite resin filling — it may be sensitive to cold for several weeks. The metals in the amalgam conduct the cold very well, transmitting it to the pulp. Bonded fillings require etching the tooth with acid before the filling is placed. In some cases, this etching removes enough enamel to make the tooth sensitive. However, advances in bonding technique now make it less likely the procedure will cause tooth sensitivity.
Your dentist or endodontist will conduct sensitivity tests that can determine if root canal treatment is needed.
How to Prevent Sensitive Teeth
- Brush your teeth twice a day for two minutes with fluoride toothpaste. Use small circular movements with a soft- to medium-bristled brush. Try to avoid brushing your teeth from side to side.
- Change your toothbrush every two to three months, or sooner if it becomes worn.
- Have sugary foods, and fizzy and acidic drinks less often. Try to have them only at mealtimes.
- If you grind your teeth, talk to your dentist about the possibility of having a night mouth guard made to wear at night.
- If you are thinking about having your teeth bleached, discuss sensitivity with your dentist before starting treatment.
- Visit your dentist at least once a year for a check up.
There are many brands of toothpaste on the market made to help ease the pain of sensitive teeth. The toothpaste should be used twice a day to brush your teeth. It can also be rubbed onto the sensitive areas. These toothpastes can take anything from a few days to several weeks to take effect. Your dentist should be able to advise you on which type of toothpaste would be best for you.
Also your dentist may recommend that you switch to a soft-bristled toothbrush, and brush teeth gently. The dentist may also recommend using a special toothpaste or mouthwash designed for sensitive teeth.