For most of us, enjoying a cold ice cream on a hot day — or slurping a hot spoonful of soup in the winter — is a pleasurable experience. For others, it’s torture. Many people suffer from some degree of tooth sensitivity, but the condition is relatively easy to prevent and treat in most cases.
What is tooth sensitivity?
People with sensitive teeth can feel a sharp pain when their teeth come into contact with foods that are particularly hot or cold; acidic foods can also trigger this reaction. Tooth sensitivity to cold foods is the most common, and is usually the most severe when eating ice cream. Many people also suffer from tooth sensitivity to heat and generally feel discomfort when drinking coffee or consuming a particularly hot meal. For people with extremely cold sensitive teeth, even just being exposed to chilly air can trigger pain and discomfort.
What causes tooth sensitivity?
Tooth sensitivity most frequently occurs as a result of receding gums. The gums act as a natural insulator against the teeth. When they begin to shrink and recede away from the teeth, often due to periodontal disease, they expose the outer layer of the tooth — enamel on the crown (the part of the tooth that extends above the gums naturally) and a substance called cementum on the lower part of the tooth, which is typically protected by the gums.
When the outer layer of enamel or cementum wears away or is damaged, it exposes the underlayer known as dentin. Less hard and dense than the outer materials, dentin is a sensitive, porous material containing “tubules” that connect to nerve tissue. Since these dentinal tubules are linked to the nerves, it makes the whole tooth suddenly much more sensitive to hot, cold and other sensations.
In addition to periodontal disease and recessed gums, there are other sensitive teeth causes. Grinding your teeth can be a culprit. By grinding your teeth on a regular basis — which most bruxism sufferers do at night while they’re asleep — you can wear away the enamel on your crown far enough to expose the dentin, and the sensitive nerve pathways, below.
Brushing too hard and using whitening treatments can also weaken the tooth’s outer layer and expose nerve endings. Other potential culprits include naturally receding gums due to age-related conditions, and damage to a tooth or a loosened cavity filling that leave the sensitive dentin unprotected.
How is tooth sensitivity treated?
The treatment for sensitive teeth pain involves addressing the underlaying issue, and your dentist’s approach can vary depending on the individual case. In cases of severe damage, crowns, inlays and bonding can all be used to strengthen the tooth and protect the inner dentin layer.
For milder cases, using a desensitizing toothpaste can be enough to manage the condition of sensitive gums and teeth. Fluoride gel treatments can help restore some of the integrity and strength of the outer tooth later, and using a toothpaste rich in fluoride will continue to bolster your tooth enamel and reduce tooth sensitivity symptoms.
Tooth sensitivity is relatively easy to manage in its milder forms, but in advanced cases, there’s only so much your dentist can do to restore damaged teeth and worn away enamel. For this reason, it’s important to seek an opinion from a professional dentist as soon as the problem appears. Quick treatment can slow or stop the development of more serious conditions and help patients avoid more serious discomfort in the future.
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My name is Jeremy Rourke. I’m part of a family of dentists with my father, brother, cousin and nephew also being dentists. I won a University of Sydney Dental Alumni prize for being the top student in my year and graduated with Honours in 1971. I have been a Registered dentist for over 40 years. In that time I have created a few “firsts” in my efforts to stay ahead.