If you suffer from the symptoms of sensitive teeth, you are not alone. It is estimated that approximately 33% of the world's population suffers from the tooth pain brought on by dentine hypersensitivity*.
If left untreated, and if the pain is intense enough for you to avoid brushing, your sensitive teeth can lead to other oral health issues. Tooth decay and gum disease are among these, so it’s important to see your dentist as soon as you begin experiencing sensitivity pain. Also, sensations resembling tooth ache can also be a sign of serious dental issues. The good news is that for most people, it’s easy to manage sensitive teeth symptoms and relieve tooth pain.
Receding gums and dental erosion are the leading causes of sensitive teeth. Tooth sensitivity occurs when pain stimuli — such as cold, heat, air or pressure — trigger sensations that reach the nerve centre of your tooth, known as tooth pulp, through small openings in exposed dental tissue. This underlying tissue is known as the dentine.
Under normal conditions, the dentine and its thousands of openings are covered and protected by tooth enamel, cementum on the root surface, and the gums that surround your teeth. As you get older, sensitive teeth can become more of an issue because your gums will have been exposed to the causes of recession over time.
Sensitive teeth causes
- Receding gums due to gum disease or from improper brushing, such as brushing too hard, or with an abrasive toothbrush or toothpaste;
- Dental erosion from acidic beverages
- A chipped, fractured or cracked tooth;
- Cavities (before they get too deep when a tooth ache may occur); and
- Certain dental procedures, such as professional cleaning (scaling and root planning) and tooth whitening.
Signs & symptoms of sensitive teeth
You may be experiencing sensitive teeth symptoms if you feel unexpected, short and sharp tooth pain in response to:
- Cold, hot, sweet or acidic drinks, such as iced water, cool drinks, coffee, tea, wine and soft drinks;
- Cold air;
- Tooth sensitivity after receiving fillings is possible, as well as post-procedures such as professional cleaning (scaling and root planning) and tooth whitening;
- Touching an exposed area of the tooth;
Your dentist can determine the cause of your sensitive teeth, and that’s the first step in treating them. If your teeth hurt and you think you may have sensitive teeth, schedule an appointment to discuss treatment options with your dentist as soon as possible.
How to fix sensitive teeth
Once in the chair, your dentist will determine the cause of your sensitivity. If you have a cavity you will require a restoration (filling or crown), to repair the affected tooth. If gum disease is the cause, a thorough cleaning (scaling and root planning) may be performed before treating the sensitivity. This can be done under local anaesthetic if necessary, to make the treatment comfortable.
If your sensitivity is due to exposed dentine, there are simple sensitive teeth treatments you can build into your daily oral care routine, such as using a toothpaste that’s specially designed to help relieve sensitivity pain along with a soft-bristled toothbrush.
If these simple self-care techniques do not relieve your sensitive teeth, schedule an appointment with your dentist to rule out a more serious condition. If more serious conditions are ruled out, your dentist may:
- Recommend a sensitive toothpaste or high-fluoride toothpaste to use at home as part of your daily oral care routine
- Apply a sensitivity product to sensitive areas
- Apply a fluoride varnish, high-fluoride foam or gel on sensitive areas;
- Suggest a brush-on fluoride gel or fluoride rinse to use in addition to your toothpaste; or
- Apply a thin seal over the affected area where the dentine has been exposed.
You can significantly reduce your risk of developing sensitive teeth by following the basic principles of daily oral care.
Brush your teeth, tongue and gums twice daily — before bed and first thing in the morning — using a soft-bristled toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste. Make sure you brush correctly and do not use a hard scrubbing action. If you have — or are at risk of — dental erosion, it is important to wait at least 30 minutes after consuming acidic foods and beverages before brushing your teeth.
For ongoing prevention of tooth pain associated with sensitivity, use a toothpaste for sensitive teeth that contains fluoride. Sensitive toothpaste can be very effective, protecting against dental decay, as well as providing relief from sensitive teeth pain. These pastes work by stopping the impulses being transmitted by the nerves of the tooth, and others work by blocking the dentine tubules, so the stimuli are not transmitted to the pulp of the tooth.
Be sure to remove plaque between your teeth to help protect yourself from gum disease by flossing every day. If you prevent gum disease you will lower your risk of experiencing tooth sensitivity.
For good measure, you may also want to consider rinsing with a mouthwash.
By limiting your intake of acidic foods and drinks, you’re also reducing your teeth’s exposure to acids and this is a great way to prevent dental erosion. Drinking tap water that contains fluoride is the healthiest choice when you are thirsty. It’s also good practice to rinse your mouth with water after consuming sugary or acidic foods and beverages.
Last but not least, be sure to schedule regular, six-monthly visits with your dentist to monitor your oral health, and to look for early dental erosion, gum disease or other oral health conditions that can be reversed.
* Cunha-Cruz, J & Wataha, JC 2014, The burden of dentine hypersensitivity. in Dentine Hypersensitivity: Developing a Person-centred Approach to Oral Health. Elsevier Inc., pp. 34-44. DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-801631-2.00003-8