What is tooth sensitivity?
Tooth sensitivity occurs when the underlying layer of your teeth -- the dentin -- becomes exposed as a result of receding gum tissue (the protective blanket that covers the tooth roots). The roots, which are not covered by hard enamel, contain thousands of tiny tubules leading to the tooth’s never center (the pulp). These dentinal tubules (or channels) allow the stimuli -- for example, the hot, cold or sweet food -- to reach the nerve in your tooth, which results in the pain you feel.
What causes tooth sensitivity?
Many factors may lead to the development of tooth sensitivity, including:
- Brushing too hard: Over time, brushing too hard or using a hard-bristled toothbrush can wear down enamel and cause the dentin to be exposed. It can also cause recession of the gums (the gum tissue pulls away from the teeth).
- Recession of the gums: As gums move away from a tooth because of conditions such as periodontal disease, the root surface becomes exposed.
- Gum disease: Inflamed and sore gum tissue may cause sensitivity because of the loss of supporting ligaments, which exposes the root surface that leads directly to the nerve of the tooth.
- Cracked teeth: Chipped or broken teeth may fill with bacteria from plaque and enter the pulp, causing inflammation.
- Teeth grinding: grinding or clenching your teeth may wear down the enamel and expose underlying dentin.
- Tooth whitening products or toothpaste with baking soda and peroxide: These products are major contributors to tooth sensitivity.
- Age: Tooth sensitivity is highest between the ages of 25 and 30.
- Plaque buildup: The presence of plaque on the root surfaces can cause sensitivity.
- Mouthwash use: Long-term use of some mouthwashes. Some over-the-counter mouthwashes contain acids that can worsen tooth sensitivity if you have exposed dentin (the middle layer of the tooth). The acids further damage the dentin layer of the tooth. If you have dentin sensitivity, ask your dentist about the use of a neutral fluoride solution.
- Acidic foods: Regular consumption of foods with a high acid content, such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, pickles and tea, can cause enamel erosion.
- Recent routine dental procedures: Sensitivity can occur following teeth cleaning, root planing, crown placement and tooth restoration. Sensitivity caused by dental procedures is temporary and usually disappears in 4 to 6 weeks.
Care and Treatment
What can I do to reduce tooth sensitivity?
- Maintain good oral hygiene: Continue to follow proper brushing and flossing techniques to thoroughly clean all parts of your teeth and mouth.
- Use a soft-bristled toothbrush: This will result in less toothbrush abrasion to the tooth surface and less irritation to your gums. Brush gently and carefully around the gum line so you do not remove more gum tissue.
- Use desensitizing toothpaste: There are several brands of toothpaste available for sensitive teeth. With regular use, you should notice a decrease in sensitivity. You may need to try several different brands to find the product that works best for you. Another tip: spread a thin layer of the toothpaste on the exposed tooth roots with your finger or a Q-tip before you go to bed. Do not use a tartar control toothpaste; rather, use a fluoridated toothpaste.
- Watch what you eat: Frequent consumption of highly acid foods can gradually dissolve tooth enamel and lead to dentin exposure. They may also aggravate the sensitivity and start the pain reaction.
- Use fluoridated dental products: Daily use of a fluoridated mouth rinse can decrease sensitivity. Ask your dentist about available products for home use.
- Avoid teeth grinding: If you grind or clench your teeth, use a mouth guard at night.
- See your dentist at regular intervals: Get professional tooth cleaning, oral hygiene instructions, and fluoride treatments every 6 months.
If you still have discomfort, talk to your dentist. There are some dental procedures that may help reduce sensitivity, including the use of:
- White fillings (bonding) to cover exposed root surfaces
- Fluoride varnishes applied to the exposed root surface
- Dentin sealers applied to the exposed root surface
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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition.
This document was last reviewed on: 08/29/2019