If you have ever felt an uncomfortable or painful sensation when eating or drinking something cold or in response to other stimuli, then you are not alone. One in eight people suffer from tooth sensitivity.

Tooth sensitivity can be temporary or chronic. Pain can be localized to one tooth or generalized to the entire mouth. It can affect a person’s ability to eat and speak, so it should be treated.

Causes of Tooth Sensitivity

Tooth sensitivity is caused when the enamel of a tooth is worn away to expose the underlying dentin or the cementum covering the root is exposed due to gum recession.

Enamel is the strongest and hardest substance in the human body. It is resistant to changes in temperature and other stimuli. Dentin and cementum are softer than enamel and when eating or drinking something cold or hot, or with foods that are sweet or sour, it can trigger pain that is often described as ‘sharp’ and ‘shooting’.

Factors that can contribute to tooth sensitivity include the following:

  • Brushing aggressively can cause the gum tissue to recede and expose the root and other areas of the tooth. This is often the main cause of tooth sensitivity.
  • Habits such a grinding your teeth when stressed or when sleeping will wear away enamel at a faster rate.
  • Gum disease: often associated with the recession causing root exposure
  • Diet: acidic foods such as citrus or sports drinks can cause enamel erosion and contribute to tooth sensitivity.
  • Tooth decay: even a small cavity has the potential to destroy enamel and expose dentin.
  • Recent dental work: it is not uncommon to experience transient sensitivity after a filling (or cleaning). This usually improves within a few weeks, but if it persists, your dentist should be contacted.

Managing and Treating sensitivity

Managing tooth sensitivity can involve simple steps like using a soft-bristled toothbrush with the right technique (not too much force, titling the toothbrush head) to avoid exacerbating gum recession. Brushing with toothpaste for sensitive teeth is also helpful for providing relief.

To treat tooth sensitivity, your dentist may suggest or do the following:

  • Desensitizing toothpaste: this special toothpaste blocks transmission of sensation from the tooth surface to the nerve. Typically, you will need several applications before you see a significant reduction in sensitivity.
  • Fluoride gel: a topical application of fluoride can strengthen the enamel and reduce sensitivity.
  • A filling, inlay, or crown: these are definitive treatments that can be used to eliminate a flaw or fix decay that has caused sensitivity.
  • Surgical gum graft: where gum recession is severe or tooth sensitivity is debilitating, a graft of gum tissue can be used to cover areas of recession.
  • Root canal: sensitivity that is severe and unresponsive to other treatment methods may need root canal therapy to eliminate the problem.

Don’t let sensitivity stop you. Consult your dentist today.