Have you ever felt pain or discomfort after a bite of ice cream or a spoonful of hot soup? If so, you’re not alone. While pain caused by hot or cold foods could be a sign of a cavity, it’s also common in people who have sensitive teeth.
In healthy teeth, a layer of enamel protects the crowns of your teeth—the part above the gum line. Under the gum line a layer called cementum protects the tooth root. Underneath both the enamel and the cementum is dentin.
Dentin is less dense than enamel and cementum and contains microscopic tubules (small hollow tubes or canals). When dentin loses its protective covering of enamel or cementum these tubules allow heat and cold or acidic or sticky foods to reach the nerves and cells inside the tooth. Dentin may also be exposed when gums recede. The result can be hypersensitivity.
Tooth sensitivity, or “dentin hypersensitivity,” is exactly what it sounds like: pain or discomfort in the teeth as a response to certain stimuli, such as hot or cold temperatures.
It may be temporary or a chronic problem, and it can affect one tooth, several teeth, or all the teeth in a single individual. It can have a number of different causes, but most cases of sensitive teeth are easily treated with a change in your oral hygiene regimen.
People with sensitive teeth may experience pain or discomfort as a response to certain triggers. You may feel this pain at the roots of the affected teeth. The most common triggers include:
- Hot foods and beverages
- Cold foods and beverages
- Cold air
- Sweet foods and beverages
- Acidic foods and beverages
Some people naturally have more sensitive teeth than others due to having thinner enamel. The enamel is the outer layer of the tooth that protects it. In many cases, the tooth’s enamel can be worn down from:
- Brushing your teeth too hard
- Using a hard toothbrush
- Grinding your teeth at night
- Regularly eating or drinking acidic foods and beverages
Sometimes, other conditions can lead to tooth sensitivity. Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), for example, can cause acid to come up from the stomach and esophagus, and may wear down teeth over time. Conditions that cause frequent vomiting — including gastroparesis and bulimia— can also cause acid to wear down the enamel.
Gum recession can leave sections of the tooth exposed and unprotected, also causing sensitivity.
Tooth decay, broken teeth, chipped teeth, and worn-down fillings or crowns can leave the dentin of the tooth exposed, causing sensitivity. If this is the case, you’ll likely only feel sensitivity in one particular tooth or region in the mouth instead of the majority of teeth.
If you’re experiencing tooth sensitivity for the first time, make an appointment with your dentist. They can look at the health of your teeth and check for potential problems like cavities, loose fillings, or recessed gums that could be causing the sensitivity.
Your dentist can do this during your routine dental cleaning. They’ll clean your teeth and do a visual exam. They may touch your teeth using dental instruments to check for sensitivity, and they might also order an X-ray on your teeth to rule out causes like cavities.
- Desensitizing toothpaste. This contains compounds that help block transmission of sensation from the tooth surface to the nerve, and usually requires several applications before the sensitivity is reduced.
- Fluoride gel. An in-office technique which strengthens tooth enamel and reduces the transmission of sensations.
- A crown, inlay or bonding. These may be used to correct a flaw or decay that results in sensitivity.
- Surgical gum graft. If gum tissue has been lost from the root, this will protect the root and reduce sensitivity.
- Root canal. If sensitivity is severe and persistent and cannot be treated by other means, your dentist may recommend this treatment to eliminate the problem.
Proper oral hygiene is the key to preventing sensitive-tooth pain. Ask your dentist if you have any questions about your daily oral hygiene routine or concerns about tooth sensitivity.