February 3, 2010

Sensitive Teeth

At least forty million people in the US have sensitive teeth. This can range from wincing when they eat ice cream or sip coffee, feeling pain when they brush, floss or clench their teeth, or even feeling an ache when they touch a tooth or expose it to cold air.

Though you can’t control the level of sensitivity in teeth, there are ways to ease the effects. The first step is to see a dentist to rule out cavities or a cracked tooth. Though tooth sensitivity can be very painful at times, it is rare for it to be a dental emergency.

What Causes Sensitive Teeth

If the hard part of a tooth wears down or the gum line recedes, sensitivity may occur. The main cause of this is the exposure of the dentin, the layer of tissue beneath the hard enamel of the tooth. When enamel is lost, hot or cold fluids and acidic or sticky foods can enter the tooth through tiny tubes in the dentin, irritate the nerves, and increase sensitivity.

Tooth pain may in turn affect one’s ability to eat, drink, or breathe. Acidic food and drinks, such as citrus juice, fruit juice, or soda, can raise the risk of tooth sensitivity. In the same way, the acid that builds up in the mouth due to bulimia or acid reflux wears down the enamel and increases sensitivity.

While dentists most often urge the use of tartar-control toothpaste to prevent tartar build-up and gum disease, about ten to twenty percent of people still have sensitive teeth. The ingredients in some whitening toothpastes may also increase tooth sensitivity. To help, dentists may suggest you switch to regular fluoride toothpaste.

How you brush your teeth can be the cause, since brushing the teeth too much or in the wrong way can strip the enamel and cause tooth sensitivity. It you tend to brush hard (one sign is bristles that point in all directions), try to use less pressure and switch to a soft brush.

Treating Sensitive Teeth

Teeth and gums will most often stay healthy and strong with proper oral hygiene. If tooth sensitivity does crop up and lasts three to four days, it’s time to see the dentist. In this case, the dentist may suggest that you use desensitizing toothpaste. The special compounds in this type of paste help to block the sensation from the tooth surface to the nerve.

Desensitizing toothpastes may take several applications before the discomfort eases. You may want to massage the paste into the gums with a finger after brushing to see if that helps. If the toothpaste does not provide relief, your dentist may suggest ways to make the enamel stronger and reduce the sensitivity.

If sensitivity is due to a receded gum line, a dentist may seal the tooth with a type of plastic that bonds to the root. Changing one’s oral hygiene habits or applying fluoride daily as a rinse or with a brush-on gel may also be suggested. If the sensitivity is severe, a root canal may be called for.