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Sensitive Subject: Sensitive Teeth

Here's what to do if your favorite foods also make your teeth hurt.
By
WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by Eric Yabu, DDS

One zing to the nerve of a tooth after a sip or bite of food is enough to send even the hungriest bear running from the kitchen. Sensitive teeth can seriously limit the enjoyment of your favorite fare.

So if ice cream meeting your tooth has you seeing stars, the layer beneath the surface of your tooth (called dentin) has become exposed, says Eric Sung, DDS, professor at UCLA's School of Dentistry. This happens when the hard outer covering of a tooth --  enamel above the gum line and cementum on the root -- wears away, exposing microscopic tubules in the dentin that lead to the nerve of the tooth. After that, biting into foods that are hot, cold, sweet, or acidic (like tomatoes, oranges, or lemons, whose acids can eat away at enamel and cementum) can cause searing pain.

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What's at the Root of Sensitive Teeth?

How does all this happen? A number of factors are to blame, Sung says.

Gum recession, when gums pull away from the tooth and expose the root surface, is common with periodontal disease, which happens when plaque accumulates along the gum line. "As plaque builds, the bacteria release toxins that cause the gums to get infected and then recede," Sung explains.

"Grinding causes teeth to flex and crack, creating a notch that exposes dentin at the gum line, called an abfraction," Sung says. If you grind, try wearing a mouth guard while you sleep to protect your teeth.

Brushing with too much force, with a stiff toothbrush, or even with an old toothbrush can cause abfractions as well. Be sure to brush gently with a soft-bristled toothbrush that you replace every three months whether or not it looks worn.

Also, teeth whiteners give new meaning to the phrase "beauty is pain." They are notorious for causing tooth sensitivity. "It's usually transient, but can be long-term where it lasts for days, if not weeks," Sung says.

How sensitive is too sensitive? Sung offers up a few rules of thumb: "If pain lasts for only a few seconds, it's not really an issue." However, if your teeth are sensitive to hot foods and beverages (usually a sign of nerve problems), or if the pain lasts more than a minute or is spontaneous, you've earned yourself a trip to the dentist.

Treating Sensitive Teeth

Sung offers these tips for strengthening sensitive teeth:

Go easy -- Toothpastes made specifically for sensitive teeth contain either potassium nitrate or strontium chloride, which help clog the dentinal tubules and prevent the painful stimulus (such as ice cream) from reaching the nerve. But don't expect immediate results: It will take at least two or three weeks for these pastes to take the edge off.

Filler up -- Silver fillings are poor insulators, a particular problem if they're deep -- kind of like wearing metal earrings when it's freezing outside. "If a filling becomes more sensitive over time, see your dentist," Sung advises. A new filling or a different type of material may stop the pain.

Cover up -- Exposed dentin means a direct path to nerves. Ask your dentist about creating a shield for your teeth with one of a range of coatings -- such as fluoride -- that effectively reduce sensitivity.

Reviewed on November 07, 2010

How Do I Measure Up? Get the Facts Fast!

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Only 18.5% of Americans never floss. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Floss removes food trapped between the teeth and removes the film of bacteria that forms there before it turns to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Try flossing just one tooth to get started.

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for 3 more days!

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily, but you're well on your way to making a positive impact on your teeth and gums. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for all 7 days!

Only 50.5% of Americans floss daily, and good for you that you are one of them! Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Congratulations on your good oral health habit!

SOURCES:

American Dental Association, Healthy People 2010

This tool is intended only for adults 18 and older.

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