Tooth sensitivity can be excruciating and it can inhibit us from eating and drinking. No matter what your pain tolerance is, tooth sensitivity can be horrendous and anything hot or cold entering your mouth can be unbearable. Even breathing in cold air can have you wincing.
Tooth sensitivity is a very common issue and around 1 in 8 adults deal with the discomfort every day(1). Whilst it can often be treated with painkillers until it has run its course, the chronic pain whilst the sensitivity is present can be very hard to live with.
There are a number of products specifically designed for sensitive teeth and these can help clear up any issues. However, understanding what tooth sensitivity is and being aware of some of the major causes can help you make educated changes to your oral care.
What is Tooth Sensitivity?
Tooth sensitivity occurs when the dentin of your tooth becomes exposed. Your tooth is made up of different layers and dentin is what lies beneath the enamel. Dentin contains thousands of microscopic channels which run from the surface of the tooth to the nerve at the centre. When these channels become exposed, hot, cold or acidic food and drink can enter these channels and directly aggravate the nerves.
Tooth abrasion and enamel decay, alongside gum recession are the common issues that lead to dentin exposure, but what causes these?
Your Diet is Too Acidic
Tooth enamel protects your teeth and eating a diet high in acidic foods can damage this protective layer. Just like consuming an orange when you have a mouth ulcer can cause pain, the same happens via the channels in your exposed dentin, resulting in nerve pain.
Whilst acidic foods, when eaten in moderation, are part of a balanced diet, if you are experiencing tooth sensitivity it may be best to avoid the following:
- Anything pickled
- Citrus fruits and juices
- Cranberries, plums and prunes
- Fizzy drinks
- Tomato products
- Processed foods
- Foods high in sugar
You Are Brushing Too Hard
Many people assume that hard bristled toothbrushes are the best option to give your teeth a deep clean twice a day. However, vigorously brushing your teeth for longer than needed with a hard brush will do more bad than good.
Over-brushing and brushing too hard can strip away the enamel of your teeth and cause gum recession, both revealing dentin which leads to tooth sensitivity. Switching to a softer bristled toothbrush, brushing for two minutes twice a day, and using a toothpaste for sensitive teeth will help alleviate tooth sensitivity.
You Have Gum Issues
Gingivitis and periodontitis (gum disease) are inflammatory problems which eat away at the gum tissue. Many people believe poor oral hygiene and the resulting build up of plaque and bacteria is the only reason for gum recession. However, some people’s genetic makeup means they are naturally more prone to tartar build up.
Regardless of the cause, gum recession will inevitably reveal parts of your teeth which are usually protected, resulting in exposed dentinal tubules and tooth sensitivity. You will need to treat the gum disease and it is best to visit your dentist to receive effective treatment. Regular hygienist visits and new oral hygiene practices will need to be adopted to prevent future tooth sensitivity.
You Grind Your Teeth
Bruxism is a habit that affects around 8-10% of the population(2) and is characterised by teeth grinding and jaw clenching. It is most prevalent in 25 to 44 year olds and is split into awake bruxism and sleep bruxism.
You may not even be aware that you are a bruxer, especially if it only occurs at night. The issue can be due to an irregular bite, stress or sleep disorders. The deterioration of the teeth through grinding eventually reveals the dentin below the protective enamel, resulting in tooth sensitivity.
How to treat bruxism depends on the specific causes in each individual and your dentist will be able to give you guidance and advice.
You Have a Chipped Tooth
If your tooth sensitivity is extremely sharp and you can pinpoint its location to one tooth, you could have a chipped or fractured tooth. In these cases, sometimes the root of the tooth itself can be exposed, resulting in unbearable pain.
The course of treatment will depend on how bad your chip or crack is, but you will definitely need to visit your dentist. In some severe cases a root canal might be needed, whereas moderate chips and cracks will need a filling or crown to help make the tooth strong again. If you are lucky you may just get by with a smooth and polish of the tooth.
You Have a Cavity
Tooth sensitivity can be caused by a cavity. Cavities occur when sugars and starches settle on a tooth and turn to plaque. The plaque contains bacteria which breaks down the tooth’s enamel, resulting in decay and a hole in your tooth. You will sometimes be able to feel a cavity with your tongue or see it when you look in a mirror. In other cases, a constant dull ache and tooth sensitivity will occur.
The only way to stop a cavity causing you tooth sensitivity is to book an appointment with your dentist for a filling.
You are Using Teeth Whitening Products
Over 100,000 people in the UK tried tooth whitening products last year(3). Many treatments, both available in shops and offered by dentists, contain peroxide-based bleaching agents. The issue lies with products that contain a high concentration of the bleaching agent. Whilst it will penetrate the tooth and remove stains, it can also expose the dentin of your teeth, resulting in tooth sensitivity.
Avoid using any teeth whitening products from high street stores, unless specifically recommended by your dentist. If you are considering whitening of any kind, it is best to consult your dentist so they can assess your overall oral health to see if you are suitable for teeth whitening treatments.
You’ve Recently Had Dental Work
Sometimes it is necessary for your dentist to carry out intrusive work on your teeth to make them as healthy as possible. Roots canals, crown fittings, and even some fillings can cause pain once you have undergone treatment and left your dentist surgery. After effects can include sensitivity to hot and cold food and drink. Your dentist will usually tell you to avoid consuming certain things during your recovery period.
If you are still struggling with tooth sensitivity a while after treatment you should schedule a follow-up appointment with your dentist.
- J Cuhna-Cruz DDS Phd et al. 2013. The prevalence of dentin hypersensitivity in general dental practices. Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA). Pages 288-296.
- The Bruxism Association. What Is Bruxism? Available online: http://www.bruxism.org.uk/what-is-bruxism.php
- A Stephens. Unknown. The truth about tooth whitening. Available online: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-113670/The-truth-tooth-whitening.html