Sensitive teeth: how to deal with tooth sensitivity

Tooth sensitivity is one of the most common dental problems, with the majority of the population having suffered from sensitive teeth at some time or another. It's a condition in which there is discomfort in the tooth or teeth caused by the consumption of hot, cold or sweet foods and drinks. The sensitivity can range from twinges in the tooth or teeth, to sharp shooting pain that can last for hours.

This condition occurs when the receding tissue of the gums exposes the dentin (the underlying layer of the teeth). The dentinal channels allow hot, cold or sweet stimuli to touch the nerves in your tooth. This causes discomfort and pain.  

Causes of sensitive teeth

There are several causes that can lead to sensitivity in the teeth:

Incorrect brushing - Excessive brushing, brushing too vigorously or with a hard-bristled toothbrush can, over time, wear away the enamel layer of the tooth and expose the dentin. Over-brushing can also cause the gum tissue to recede.

Gum disease - Conditions like gingivitis cause the gum tissue to become inflamed and sore. This can also tear away the supporting ligaments, exposing the root surface, and allowing stimuli to reach the nerve of the tooth.

Cracked teeth - Teeth that are chipped can soon become filled with plaque. The bacteria can enter and inflame the pulp.

Bruxism - People who clench or grind their teeth can find their tooth enamel wearing down quickly, exposing the dentin.

Teeth-whitening products - Products that are used to whiten the teeth have been found to be linked to tooth sensitivity. Sensitivity is very common during both in-surgery teeth-whitening treatments and home teeth whitening. Different people experience this sensitivity to varying extents.

Age - Persons between the age of 25 and 30 have been found to be the most vulnerable to tooth sensitivity.

Mouthwash - A few over-the-counter mouthwash rinses contain ingredients that have been found linked to sensitive teeth.

Diet - Foods with a high acid content - like tomatoes, lemons, oranges and other citrus fruits - and tea can erode the enamel layer of the teeth, causing sensitivity.

Dental procedures - Sometimes, tooth sensitivity may be seen following dental procedures like tooth restoration, root planing and crown placement. This kind of sensitivity is not long lasting and disappears after a few weeks. Teeth whitening frequently causes temporary tooth sensitivity.

Risk factors - Although tooth sensitivity can be seen in people of all ages, it is more often found in people who are between 20 and 40 years of age. Women have been found to be more susceptible to sensitivity.  

Diagnosis of tooth sensitivity

Your dentist will enquire about your dental hygiene practices and will look for any signs of tooth decay and gum disease. He will also check for any exposed roots, and may use a metal instrument called an explorer to test for sensitivity. He will also look to see if your sensitivity can be treated by root canal treatment.  

Treatment of sensitive teeth

Depending on the cause of the sensitivity, your dentist will recommend products or perform treatments.

  • He may use a desensitizing product to relieve the symptoms of sensitive teeth.
  • He may also use a fluoride rinse or gel on the affected teeth. These products have to be applied on the teeth regularly with a gap of one or two weeks between each application. This helps reduce the sensitivity, and build up protection around the teeth.
  • Your dentist may use a filling around the area where the gum and tooth meet to cover any exposed dentine.
  • If none of these methods works, or if the tooth’s nerve has been severely damaged, the sensitivity may be treated with a root canal treatment.
  • If the sensitivity is caused by a new amalgam filling, the symptoms normally go away after a few weeks. If they don’t, your dentist will polish the filling to relieve the symptoms.
  • If the sensitivity is caused by bruxism, your dentist will look at ways to treat the teeth grinding.  

Prevention of tooth sensitivity

Tooth sensitivity can be easily prevented.

  • Brush and floss the teeth daily, and make sure to clean your teeth and mouth thoroughly. Don’t brush aggressively. Check the bristles on your toothbrush. If they are pointing in different directions, you’re brushing with too much pressure. Brush carefully, especially around the gum line.
  • Use only a soft bristled toothbrush. Replace it every three months.
  • Cut down on highly acid foods like citrus fruits. If you do drink citric fruit juices, use a straw to limit the exposure of the juice to the teeth. 
  • If you have the habit of clenching or grinding your teeth, use an appliance like a mouth guard to control these actions.
  • Cut down on sugary foods and fizzy sodas.
  • If you are considering bleaching your teeth or any other teeth whitening treatments, discuss the possibility of developing sensitivity with your dentist.
  • Don’t put undue pressure on your teeth. Don’t bite objects like ice cubes that can cause cracks to form inside the tooth.
  • Ask your dentist to recommend a fluoride mouth rinse to use at home.

In conclusion, tooth sensitivity can be prevented by following good dental hygiene practices. The symptoms can be alleviated by addressing the cause of the sensitivity.