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Greensboro, NC 27408
336-286-9897

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August 19, 2014

Sensitive Teeth: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

Many people experience tooth sensitivity at some point in their lives. Eating, drinking, and even brushing and flossing can sometimes be an unpleasant experience. Tooth sensitivity typically results from worn tooth enamel or exposed tooth roots. However, sometimes a cavity, cracked or chipped tooth, or a dental procedure side effect (such as bleaching) is to blame.

Photo of teeth and gums showing gum recession and tooth wear.

In healthy teeth, a layer of enamel protects the part of the tooth structure above the gum, called the crown of the tooth. Under the gum, a layer called cementum protects the tooth root. The second layer of the tooth which underlies the enamel and cementum is called dentin. Dentin is porous and contains microscopic tubes that have nerve fibers within them. When dentin loses its protective covering of enamel or cementum, these tubules allow heat, cold, acidic, or sticky foods to reach the nerves and cells inside the tooth. In fact, research shows that:

  • 67% of people feel pain when eating or drinking cold things.
  • 35% of people have discomfort when eating or drinking hot items.
  • 51% of people experience sensitivity when breathing in cold air.
  • 47% of people have twinges when eating sweet or sugary foods.

Sensitive teeth can be treated and the treatment will depend on the cause of the sensitivity.

  • Desensitizing Toothpastes: These toothpastes contain ingredients that help depolarize nerve endings thus blocking transmission of sensation from the tooth surface to the nerve. They often require several applications before the sensitivity is reduced. If sensitivity continues after 2-3 weeks of use, it is important to see the dentist to make sure there is not a more significant reason for the tooth pain.
  • Dietary Changes: Dietary changes can help minimize and/or prevent tooth sensitivity.
    • Limit Acidic Foods and Drinks: Sodas, citrus juices, fruits, and vinegars can strip the protective proteins covering the dentin and expose the tubules thus exacerbating tooth sensitivity.
    • Eat Oxalate-Rich Foods: Spinach, bananas, carrots, blueberries, peanut butter, and celery are rich in oxalic acids. When oxalate-rich foods are eaten, oxalate crystals precipitate on the teeth which can plug the dentinal tubules. However, those prone to kidney stones should avoid oxalate-rich foods.
    • Incorporate Dairy Products: Milk, cheeses, and yogurts contain caseins which also provide a protective layer on the dentinal surface. They buffer against acids and act as a mild physical barrier to keep minerals from leaving the tooth and help keep the dentinal pores small and less sensitive.
  • Fluoride Gel: An in-office application of fluoride gel strengthens tooth enamel and reduces the transmission of sensations.
  • Restorative Treatment: A crown, inlay, or bonding may be used to correct a flaw or decay that results in sensitivity.
  • Gum Grafting: If gum tissue has been lost from the root (gum recession), a surgical gum graft can sometimes protect the root and reduce sensitivity.
  • Root Canal: Severe and persistent sensitivity that cannot be treated by any other means may require a root canal to eliminate the problem.

Tooth sensitivity can be prevented by gently using a soft-bristled toothbrush with a fluoridated toothpaste. Other ways of preventing sensitivity are:

  • Using a protective mouth guard if tooth grinding is suspected. A mouth guard will help minimize gum recession as well as prevent tooth fractures
  • Avoid acidic foods and drinks, or drink them with a straw to limit tooth contact and thus, prevent erosion of the protective enamel and cementum.
  • Milk or water consumption after drinking acidic substances can buffer the acid levels.
  • Wait at least 30 minutes after consuming acidic food or drink to brush the teeth. Since acids soften the enamel, brushing immediately after exposure can make the enamel more susceptible to wear and thinning.

Tooth sensitivity that does not respond to over-the-counter or other home remedies within a couple of weeks should be evaluated by a dentist.

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3150 North Elm Street
Suite 210
Greensboro, NC 27408
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336-286-9897