From chewing on ice to using whitening treatments, a number of things can cause tooth sensitivity. Here’s how to figure out the source of sudden discomfort.
If you suddenly feel twinges or shock-like pain in your teeth, it’s time to investigate.
The American Academy of Endodontists (AAE) describes tooth sensitivity as a brief sensation caused by a stimulus, such as heat or cold, to exposed dentin, the layer beneath the hard, white enamel of the teeth. When dentin loses its protective covering, the nerves within the teeth lose their buffer.
“The nerve of the tooth can only react one way when it’s stimulated, and that’s what causes pain,” says Richard Price, DDS.
Tooth sensitivity is relatively common. Approximately 1 in 8 people experience sensitive teeth, according to a study.
Determining the Cause of Sensitive Teeth
Although tooth sensitivity can affect people at any age, women and young adults ages 18 to 44 years old with receding gums tend to report the most tooth sensitivity, according to the JADA study.
The list of other causes of sensitive teeth is quite long, and some are conditions that take a dental visit to uncover. “There are several dental conditions that cause tooth sensitivity, most of which involve the loss of protective covering over the tooth”.
To find the cause of your tooth sensitivity, your dentist will likely do an oral exam and ask for details about when you feel these flashes of pain. Key culprits to be aware of include:
- Your diet. Eating acidic or hard foods can harm your teeth. Juices, citrus fruits, and sports drinks can contribute to tooth sensitivity.
- Chewing ice. If you chew on ice, it’s a habit you should consider stopping, as it can crack the enamel of your teeth or grind it down over time.
- Harsh brushing. Any abrasive technique can increase tooth sensitivity. Habits like, using a hard-bristled toothbrush and brushing your teeth aggressively can contribute to tooth sensitivity.
- Tooth decay. Even a small cavity can eat away enough tooth enamel to expose dentin and cause sensitivity. In this case, a filling or a crown might help.
- Issues affecting your gums. Toothbrush abrasion, pocket reduction surgery, prep work for a crown, excessive flossing, and gum disease can all lead to gum-related tooth sensitivity. Gums also recede with age, which can further increase sensitivity.
- Split tooth. “If you experience sensitivity when you bite down, it may indicate a split tooth”. This requires immediate attention.
- Recent dental work. You may experience temporary sensitivity after you’ve had a dental procedure. This should improve within four weeks, but let your dentist know if it persists.
- Eating or digestive disorders. The frequent vomiting associated with bulimia leads to stomach acids wearing away at the surface of the teeth. Acid reflux can have the same effect.
- Sinus infection. A sinus infection can make your teeth hurt because of the pressure and inflammation of the sinuses swelling. You may suspect a sinus infection if your teeth and your head hurt more when you lean over with your head down, Price says.
- Pregnancy. Pregnancy doesn’t directly cause tooth sensitivity, but its hormonal changes can affect your gums, which might lead to some discomfort or pain.
- Cold weather. Cold air flowing over your teeth can trigger a sensitive twinge. Your dentist might test your sensitivity by blowing air on your teeth.
- Stress. Stress can lead to tooth damage if it causes you to grind your teeth, which in turn can cause tooth sensitivity. Because this grinding, called bruxism, often occurs when you’re asleep, you might not realize you’re doing it. Teeth grinding can cause many problems, from tooth damage to headaches.
With so many possible causes, working with your dentist to address sensitive teeth is essential, both to find the cause and create a treatment plan. Possible solutions include an over-the-counter or prescription desensitizing toothpaste or a fluoride treatment, among other office procedures.