Having sensitive teeth can mean anything from getting a mild twinge to having severe discomfort that can continue for several hours. It can also be an early warning sign of more serious dental problems.
Having sensitive teeth is a very common problem; many suffer from it and it may start at any time. It is more common in the 20-40 age groups, although it can affect people in their early teens and when they are over 70. Women are more frequently affected than men.
The outer layer of the tooth is called enamel and it protects the softer dentine beneath it. If this dentine is exposed, a tooth may become sensitive. This usually happens down near the gum margin where the tooth and the gum meet as the enamel layer is much thinner here.
Brushing too hard can cause enamel to be worn away, especially near the gumline. This exposed dentine may then become sensitive.
Loss of tooth enamel caused by acid attacks from acidic food and drinks; If enamel is worn away the dentine underneath is exposed, which may lead to sensitivity.
Gums may naturally recede (shrink back), and the roots will become exposed and can be more sensitive. Root surfaces do not have an enamel layer to protect them.
A build-up of plaque or tartar can cause the gum to recede down the tooth and even destroy the bony support of the tooth (Periodontal Disease). Pockets can form in the gums around the tooth, making the area difficult to keep clean and the problem worse.
This is a habit which involves clenching and grinding the teeth together. This can cause the enamel of the teeth to be worn away, making the teeth sensitive. Other causes of pain from sensitivity may be:
A cracked tooth or filling:
A cracked tooth is one that has become broken. A crack can run from the biting surface of a tooth down towards the root. Extreme temperatures, especially cold, may cause moderate to severe discomfort.
Some patients have sensitivity for a short time during or after having their teeth bleached. Discuss this with your dentist before having treatment. When are teeth more likely to be sensitive? You are more likely to feel the sensitivity when drinking or eating something cold, from cold air catching your teeth, and sometimes with hot foods or drinks. Some people have sensitivity when they have sweet or acidic food and drink. The pain can come and go, with some times being worse than others.
Treatment of Teeth Sensitivity:
There are many brands of toothpaste on the market made to help ease the pain of sensitive teeth. The toothpaste should be used twice a day to brush your teeth. It can also be rubbed onto the sensitive areas. These toothpastes can take anything from a few days to several weeks to take effect. We should be able to advise you on which type of toothpaste would be best for you. You may find that hot, cold, sweet or acidic drinks, or foods like ice cream can bring on sensitivity, so you may want to avoid these. If you have sensitivity when brushing your teeth with cold water from the tap, you may need to use warm water instead. It is important you do not avoid brushing your teeth regularly as this could make the problem worse.
Should I see my dentist? Yes, if you have tried treating your sensitive teeth for a few weeks and have had no improvement. What treatments can we offer as dentists? During an examination, we will talk to you about your symptoms. We will look closely at your teeth to establish what is causing the sensitivity and to work out the best way of treating it. We may treat the affected teeth with special de-sensitising agents to help relieve symptoms. We frequently will use Fluoride gels, rinses and varnishes which can be easily applied to your sensitive teeth. These can be painted onto the teeth at regular appointments a couple of weeks apart, to build up some protection. Sensitivity can take some time to settle, and you may need several appointments. If this still does not help, we may seal or fill around the necks of the teeth, where the tooth and gum meet, to cover any exposed dentine. In very serious cases, more extensive it may be necessary to root-fill the tooth.
To help prevent or reduce the risk of having sensitive teeth, you should brush your teeth twice a day for two minutes with fluoride toothpaste. Ask your dentist to help you choose a toothbrush which is suitable for you; for most patients, we recommend a soft to medium bristled brush (we almost never recommend that a patient uses a hard toothbrush – only to be used for cleaning your nails!).
Other helpful tips:
- Change your toothbrush every two to three months, or as soon as it becomes worn.
- Have sugary foods and fizzy and acidic drinks less frequently. Try to confine them to mealtimes.
- If you grind your teeth, talk to your dentist about the possibility of having a mouth-guard made to wear at night to protect them.
- If you are thinking about having your teeth whitened, discuss sensitivity with your dentist before starting treatment.
- Visit your dentist regularly; for most of our patients, we recommend that they come to visit us twice a year.