Having sensitive teeth can mean anything from getting a mild twinge to having severe discomfort that can last for several hours. It can also be an early warning sign of more serious dental problems. Many people suffer from sensitive teeth and it can start at any time. It is more common in people aged between 20 and 40, although it can affect anyone from teenagers to people over 70. Women are more likely to be affected than men.
The part of the tooth we can see above the gum is covered by a layer of enamel that protects the softer dentine underneath. If the dentine is exposed, a tooth can become sensitive. This usually happens where the tooth and the gum meet and the enamel layer is much thinner.
Here are some causes of sensitivity:
Toothbrush abrasion – brushing too hard, and brushing from side to side, can cause enamel to be worn away, particularly where the teeth meet the gums. The freshly exposed dentine may then become sensitive.
Dental erosion – this is loss of tooth enamel caused by attacks of acid from acidic food and drinks. If enamel is worn away, the dentine underneath is exposed which may lead to sensitivity.
Gum recession – 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.
Gum disease – a build-up of plaque or tartar can cause the gum to recede down the tooth and can even destroy the bony support of the tooth. Pockets can form in the gum around the tooth, making the area difficult to keep clean and the problem worse.
Tooth grinding – 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 crack can run from the biting surface of a tooth down towards the root. Extreme temperatures, especially cold, may cause discomfort.
Tooth bleaching – some patients have sensitivity for a short time during or after having their teeth bleached. Talk to your dentist about this before having treatment.
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 sometimes being worse than others.
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. If you have tried treating your sensitive teeth for a few weeks and have had no improvement, go and see your dentist.
During an examination the dentist will talk to you about your symptoms. They will look at your teeth to find out what is causing the sensitivity and to find the best way of treating it. The dentist may treat the affected teeth with special de-sensitising products to help relieve the symptoms. Fluoride gels, rinses or varnishes can be applied to sensitive teeth. These can be painted onto the teeth at regular appointments one or two weeks apart, to build up some protection. Sensitivity can take some time to settle, and you may need to have several appointments. If this still does not help, your dentist may seal or fill around the neck of the tooth, where the tooth and gum meet, to cover exposed dentine. In very serious cases it may be necessary to root-fill the tooth.
How can I prevent sensitive teeth?
Brush your teeth twice a day for two minutes with a fluoride toothpaste containing at least 1350ppm (parts per million) of fluoride. Use small circular movements with a soft- to medium-bristled brush. Try to avoid brushing your teeth from side to side.
• Change your toothbrush every two to three months, or sooner if it becomes worn.
• Have sugary foods, and fizzy and acidic drinks less often. Try to have them only at meal times.
• If you grind your teeth, talk to your dentist about the possibility of having a mouthguard made for you to wear at night.
• If you are thinking about having your teeth bleached, talk to your dentist about sensitivity before starting treatment.
• Visit your dentist regularly, as often as they recommend.