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Dental Health and Sensitive Teeth

Tooth sensitivity is tooth discomfort in one or more teeth that’s triggered by hot, cold, sweet, or sour foods and drinks, or even by breathing cold air. The pain can be sharp and sudden and can shoot deep into the nerve endings of your teeth.

What Causes Sensitive Teeth?

Sensitive teeth occur when the underlying layer of your teeth -- the dentin -- becomes exposed as a result of receding gum tissue (the protective blanket that covers the tooth roots). The roots, which are not covered by hard enamel, contain thousands of tiny tubules leading to the tooth's nerve center (the pulp). These dentinal tubules (or channels) allow the stimuli -- for example, the hot, cold, or sweet food -- to reach the nerve in your tooth, which results in the pain you feel.

Many factors may lead to sensitive teeth, including:

  • Brushing too hard. Over time, brushing too hard or using a hard-bristled toothbrush can wear down enamel and expose the dentin. It can also cause the gums to recede (the gum tissue pulls away from the teeth).
  • Tooth decay near the gum line.
  • Recession of the gums. As gums move away from a tooth due to conditions such as periodontal disease or brushing too hard, the root surface becomes exposed.
  • Gum disease (gingivitis). Inflamed and sore gum tissue may cause the loss of supporting ligaments, which exposes the root surface that leads directly to the nerve of the tooth.
  • Cracked teeth. Chipped or broken teeth may fill with bacteria from plaque. The bacteria can enter the pulp, causing inflammation.
  • Teeth grinding. Grinding or clenching your teeth may wear down the enamel and expose underlying dentin.
  • Tooth whitening products. These products may be major contributors to sensitive teeth.
  • Your age. Tooth sensitivity is highest between ages 25 and 30.
  • Plaque buildup. The presence of plaque on the root surfaces can cause sensitivity.
  • Long-term use of some mouthwashes. Some over-the-counter mouthwashes contain acids that can worsen tooth sensitivity if you have exposed dentin (the middle layer of the tooth). The acids further damage the dentin layer. If you have dentin sensitivity, ask your dentist about the use of a neutral fluoride solution.
  • Acidic foods. Regular consumption of foods with a high acid content, such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, pickles, and tea, can cause enamel erosion.
  • Recent routine dental procedures. Sensitivity can occur following teeth cleaning, root planing, crown placement, and tooth restoration. Sensitivity caused by dental procedures is temporary, usually disappearing in 4 to 6 weeks.

 

What Can I Do to Reduce Tooth Sensitivity?

Some steps you can take to prevent tooth sensitivity include:

  • Maintain good oral hygiene. Continue to follow proper brushing and flossing techniques to thoroughly clean all parts of your teeth and mouth.
  • Use a soft-bristled toothbrush. Soft bristles will reduce gum irritation and toothbrush abrasion of the tooth surface. Brush gently and carefully around the gum line so you do not remove gum tissue.
  • Use desensitizing toothpaste. Several brands of toothpaste are available for sensitive teeth. With regular use, you should notice a decrease in sensitivity. You may need to try several brands to find the product that works best for you. Another tip: Spread a thin layer of the toothpaste on the exposed tooth roots with your finger or a Q-tip before you go to bed. Do not use a tartar control toothpaste; rather, use a fluoridated toothpaste.
  • Watch what you eat. Frequent consumption of highly acidic foods can gradually dissolve tooth enamel and lead to dentin exposure. Acidic foods may also aggravate the sensitivity and start the pain reaction.
  • Use fluoridated dental products. Daily use of a fluoridated mouth rinse can decrease sensitivity. Ask your dentist about products available for home use.
  • Avoid teeth grinding. If you grind or clench your teeth, use a mouth guard at night.
  • See your dentist at regular intervals. Get professional tooth cleaning, oral hygiene instructions, and fluoride treatments every 6 months (or sooner, depending on your condition).

If you still have discomfort, talk to your dentist. There may be some dental procedures that may help reduce sensitivity, including the use of:

  • White fillings(bonding) to cover exposed root surfaces
  • Fluoride varnishes applied to the exposed root surface
  • Dentin sealers applied to the exposed root surface

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Alfred D. Wyatt Jr., DMD on June 23, 2014
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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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