The most common reason behind teeth hypersensitivity is gingivitis, a gum disease that causes gums to shrink away from the tops of the teeth and expose nerves not protected by tooth enamel and dentin. These root nerves are comprised of microscopic tubules extending into the center (pulp) of the tooth. When exposed to sweet, cold or hot foods, the tubules that are normally protected by gums and dentin allow this type of stimuli to irritate the pulp and cause pain that may feel like a toothache.
In addition to gingivitis, other factors may contribute to tooth sensitivity, such as:
- Using a hard-bristled toothbrush or brushing vigorously enough to erode tooth enamel. Dentists advise brushing several times a day with a soft or medium-bristled toothbrush instead of once with an abrasive, generically constructed toothbrush.
- Teeth harboring cracks and chips that allow destructive anaerobic bacteria to accumulate in dental indentations. Excess oral bacteria typically develops into a biofilm, a hard substance making it easier for plaque to irritate sensitive teeth pulp.
- People who grind their teeth in their sleep. Bruxism (chronic teeth grinding) is usually caused by anxiety, sleep disorders such as sleep apnea or crooked/missing teeth. Unless treated, bruxism causes tooth sensitivity by eroding a tooth’s enamel and exposing pulp and dentin nerves.
- Use of mouthwashes and toothpastes containing desiccants and detergents. Most brand name mouthwashes and toothpastes purchased in grocery and department stores contain abrasive, acidic ingredients that weaken dentin and also contribute to a high pH level in the mouth. For example, sodium lauryl sulfate is commonly used in toothpastes to create a foaming action when brushed against the teeth. However, SLS does not impart any benefits to oral health. In fact, this substance is found in many cleaning solutions and shampoos and has shown to severely irritate gums and mouth tissue due to its abrasive qualities.
- Periodontal disease will cause tooth sensitivity since gingivitis and tooth decay precipitate periodontal disease. When dentists diagnose someone with periodontitis, this means they have found small spaces or “pockets” appearing between the teeth and at the gum line due to severe gum disease. Unless treated, periodontitis results in tooth loss, severe oral infection and possible jawbone deformities.
The best way to prevent tooth sensitivity is to maintain good oral hygiene practices that include brushing, flossing and rinsing twice daily with products that do not contain alcohol, saccharine or sodium lauryl sulfate. Other methods for reducing your risk of tooth sensitivity due to gingivitis, receding gums and worn enamel are:
- Avoiding acidic and/or sugary foods that contribute to enamel erosion and exposure of tooth dentin
- Treating bruxism by wearing a mouth guard during sleep to protect dental enamel
- Using only oral rinses containing fluoride
- Visiting a dentist every six months for a professional cleaning and oral exam
Using “desensitizing” toothpastes may temporarily alleviate tooth sensitivity pain but does nothing to treat the primary cause of the problem. Ingredients such as potassium nitrate and strontium chloride are often found in desensitizing toothpastes that inhibit transmission of nerve signals by restricting fluid movement in dentin microtubules. In addition, consumer research on desensitizing toothpastes indicates it generally takes several weeks of regularly brushing with the toothpaste before results (if any) are noticeable.
How Your Dentist Treats Tooth Sensitivity
Applying a fluoride varnish to overly sensitive teeth is one way your dentist can reduce pain and discomfort. Fluoride varnish strengthens dentin and enamel to prevent erosion and exposure of easily irritated nerve roots.
Protecting Root Endings
If exposed roots are causing tooth sensitivity, your dentist may use a dental sealant to cover particularly painful areas. By sealing exposed tooth surfaces with a bonding agent, your dentist can block exposure to hot, cold or sweet foods responsible for tooth sensitivity pain.
Severe and persistent tooth sensitivity may indicate teeth with infected pulps. Root canal treatment involving removal of infected pulp and replacing pulp with an enamel-like material called gutta percha.
Dental crowns and inlays may be able to reduce tooth sensitivity by repairing or protecting decayed spots on enamel. Surgical gum grafts can also relieve tooth sensitivity by removing tissue from the palate and grafting this tissue existing gum tissue so that roots are once again covered.