If you suffer from sensitive teeth, you are not alone. Sensitive teeth is a very common problem, which affects most people now and then. Some only feel pain from their teeth when they eat something very cold or drink something very hot. For others the teeth are so sensitive, that even a cold wind on their teeth can be a very painful experience. Why are teeth sometimes sensitive and what can be done about it?
If you experience any kind of pain from your teeth, you should always consult your dentist to make sure that the pain is not caused by more serious problems such as cavities or periodontal disease. If your dentist has already ruled out these causes, you will probably be diagnosed with sensitive teeth. Teeth become sensitive when the nerve inside the tooth is stimulated. The nerve of the tooth does not distinguish between hot, cold or any other stimulus. In whatever way the nerve of your tooth is affected, it will feel the same: painful. Normally your tooth enamel offers the necessary protection and your teeth shouldn’t be sensitive to cold, warm, sweet or sour. When for some reason a part of your tooth is not protected by enamel, the result is sensitive teeth. There can be several reasons, why a person develops sensitive teeth:
Exposed tooth roots
Normally the crown of your tooth is protected by enamel and the root surfaces are protected by the gums. But sometimes the gum line recedes, leaving your root surface exposed and sensitive. This can happen if your brushing technique has been incorrect for a while:
- Do you use a hard toothbrush?
- Are you a little rough, when you brush?
- Do you use circular movements or back-and-forward movements with your toothbrush, when you brush?
The correct technique for brushing your teeth is to use a medium soft toothbrush and not press it too hard against the gums. If the brushes on your toothbrush are bending outwards rather than standing straight, this is a sign that you need to be less rough. If your gums turn white while you brush on the edge between the teeth and the gums, this is another sign that you are using too much pressure. The correct brushing technique also involves small circular movements rather than straight movements back and forward across the teeth. Your dentist or dental hygienist can instruct you on the proper brushing technique.
Another common reason for exposed tooth roots is periodontal disease, which causes the bone and the gum to recede. Gums that have receded cannot return to their place, so it is important to prevent them from receding in the first place.
Teeth that are worn can be very sensitive as well. Some people grind or clench their teeth, when they are stressed or while they sleep. Teeth grinding wears down the teeth and makes them sensitive. The first layer to be worn off is the enamel. When the enamel is gone, the next layer (called dentine) is exposed. Dentine is not as hard as the enamel and does not offer the same protection. This might cause your teeth to become sensitive.
If your teeth are sensitive, but there are no exposed root surfaces or signs of wear, the reason might be a crack in the tooth. Most people have small cracks in their teeth and never feel pain from them. For others, even a tiny crack can make a tooth extremely sensitive.
What can be done?
Proper oral hygiene is a must in order to treat your sensitive teeth. Learn how to brush properly and thoroughly without causing damage to your teeth and gums. Even if your gums have already receded, keeping the root surfaces plaque free is an important step toward making them pain free. If the root surfaces are covered in plaque, they will be more sensitive, since the plaque produces acid which etches away on the root surface. If, on the other hand, the root surface is clean, the surface will be able to create a protective layer and will be less sensitive.
Use the right toothpaste
Toothpaste containing fluoride helps protect your teeth. The fluoride combines with the calcium in your saliva to ‘harden’ the surface of your teeth. Some people even find it very helpful to leave a layer of toothpaste on the sensitive spots on their teeth after they have brushed.
It is also possible to buy desensitizing toothpastes, which help block transmission of sensation from the tooth surface to the nerve.
What the dentist can do
If the more simple measures mentioned above do not work, your dentist might be able to help you in other ways. A fluoride gel can be applied in the clinic or a hard sealer (usually made of a plastic material) can be applied over the sensitive part of your tooth in order to protect it mechanically. If you have a very sensitive root surface, which has also become concave from brushing, a filling can be laid which will offer protection and make the tooth less sensitive.
It is worth noting, however, that if your brushing technique continues to be incorrect, neither varnishes nor fillings will last very long before you have brushed them away and your teeth are sensitive again.
If the reason for your sensitive teeth is wear from grinding or clenching your teeth, you might need to think about why you have this habit. If the reason is stress, consider doing something about the stress. If it is just a bad habit and it is not possible to stop, you can have your dentist make a mouth guard. A mouth guard will not take away your habit, but it will at least protect your teeth from being worn and increasingly sensitive from it.
Other more radical measures against sensitive teeth is capping of the tooth or even root canal therapy, which takes out the nerve of the tooth and puts and end to the pain altogether.