When you have a sensitive tooth or teeth, you feel sudden, often sharp pain or discomfort after eating or drinking something hot or cold, or sometimes with brushing or flossing.
Healthy teeth have two layers of protection: enamel, which protects the crowns (the part above the gum line), and cementum, which guards the tooth root beneath the gum line. Underneath both of these two layers is something called dentin, hard tissue that is similar to bone but softer and less dense. When the protective layers of enamel, cementum, or both are lost and dentin is exposed, heat and cold can be conducted much more easily to the nerves inside the tooth. Receding gums can expose the root surface and the softer layer of cementum resulting in sensitivity as well.
There are many possible causes for tooth sensitivity. Some of these can include:
- Tooth decay (cavities), worn and leaky fillings, or broken teeth
- Gum disease that exposes the tooth root
- Worn tooth enamel and cementum—for example, if you’re using a hard toothbrush and bushing aggressively
- Tooth erosion from highly acidic foods and beverages, like soda, wine, citrus fruits, and vinegar
- Grinding your teeth at night (bruxism)
- Temporary sensitivity after dental treatment
Yes, sensitive teeth can be treated. The best treatment for your sensitive teeth will depend on what is causing the sensitivity. If your dentist can identify an underlying problem, such as gum disease or tooth decay, he or she can treat that problem. For example:
- If decay has resulted in sensitivity, your dentist may recommend a filling, crown, inlay, or bonding
- If you have lost gum tissue at the tooth root, a surgical gum graft can protect the root and reduce sensitivity
- If your sensitive teeth cause severe pain and other treatments aren't helping, your dentist might recommend a root canal (link to root canal)
- If you grind your teeth at night, your dentist can have a custom-fitted mouth guard made to protect your teeth and aid in breaking this habit.
Even if you can’t find an obvious cause for your tooth sensitivity, there are things you can do to reduce it. Your dentist can apply a flouride gel to your teeth, which protects the enamel and reduces the sensitivity and pain. There are also over-the-counter desensitizing toothpastes that can decrease sensitivity. It can take a couple of weeks to notice results after you start to use these toothpastes.
To prevent your teeth from becoming sensitive, or to prevent sensitivity from recurring after treatment, there are several things you can do.
- Use a soft-bristled toothbrush and floss daily. Avoid brushing and flossing too aggressively, and do not use abrasive toothpaste
- Limit acidic foods and drinks, like carbonated beverages, wine, and citrus fruits; these can eat away at the enamel. Drinking milk or water after eating or drinking anything high in acidity can also help balance acid levels
- Do not brush your teeth right after eating or drinking something highly acidic, as the enamel is more vulnerable to erosion at that time