What can I do about my sensitive teeth?

Tooth sensitivity, sometimes called dentin hypersensitivity, is generally caused by an area of exposed dentin on one or more teeth. It's characterized by a brief, sharp, localized pain or feeling of discomfort in response to cold, hot, sweet, sour, touch, pressure, and cold air. Similar symptoms can also be caused by common problems such as tooth decay, gum disease, cracked teeth, and teeth grinding.

Tooth sensitivity is relatively common. There is a wide range of estimates as to how many adult patients suffer from tooth sensitivity, but a review of studies found a best estimate of 11.5%. This condition can negatively affect your oral health and general quality of life and impact normal daily activities such as speaking, eating, drinking, and toothbrushing. Learn about the causes and treatments of tooth sensitivity as well as how to prevent it from recurring.

What are the causes of tooth sensitivity? 

Common causes of tooth sensitivity include:

  • tooth decay (cavities),
  • gum recession causing exposed tooth root(s) (from brushing too hard, gum disease, or from years of wear and tear)
  • teeth grinding,
  • cracked tooth, or recent dental procedures such as fillings, gum surgery, or teeth whitening.

The problem can be easy to diagnose, like in the case of cavities or gum disease, but many times the cause can be hard to pinpoint because the symptoms are only sporadic, hard to duplicate, or localized.

How can I treat tooth sensitivity?

Tooth sensitivity shouldn’t be ignored. The reasons for your sensitivity may be minor and easily treatable or a sign of a more serious problem. If you experience tooth sensitivity, then see your dentist to determine the cause.  Fortunately, there are many solutions that your dentist can use to diagnose and relieve your pain.

  • Repair any decayed or cracked teeth: Your dentist can correct any recognizable tooth problems that may be the source of pain.
  • Periodontal (gum) surgery: If the sensitivity is coming from exposed root surfaces due to gum recession, your dentist may recommend a surgical procedure that re-covers the exposed roots with gum tissue.
  • Mouthguard: If you have sensitivity due to teeth grinding, your dentist may advise that you wear a mouthguard at night to prevent further grinding away of your protective enamel
  • Root canal treatment: Depending on the cause of the sensitivity, such as decay or a crack into the pulp, removing the tooth pulp may be the recommendation to eliminate your problem.

For areas of exposed dentin that are not caused by any diagnosed dental pathology (e.g. tooth decay, gum disease, cracked tooth) the following methods are often used.

  • Special desensitizing toothpaste: These toothpastes are for sensitive teeth that have exposed root surfaces. While experience will vary for each person, it typically will take regular usage over two or more weeks before experiencing effective relief.
  • Prescription fluoride: Your dentist may suggest a prescription fluoride gel or over-the-counter rinse, paste or gel.
  • In-office treatment with a desensitizing agent: Your dentist may recommend an in-office treatment with fluoride gels or other desensitizing agents.
  • Plastic coating or filling: Sometimes it’s necessary to place a plastic coating or even a filling in the area of exposed tooth surface that’s causing the sensitivity.

What can I do to prevent tooth sensitivity?

Taking care of your teeth is important to avoid tooth sensitivity problems and to help existing problems from worsening. Here are some ways you can prevent tooth sensitivity from recurring. 

Proper brushing:

Brush your teeth twice daily using a toothbrush with soft bristles. Your toothpaste should contain fluoride but avoid abrasive toothpastes and hard-bristled brushes. When brushing your teeth, don’t use excessive force. Your strokes during the recommended two-minute toothbrushing should be gentle, not forceful. And don’t forget to floss. You can always ask your dentist or hygienist how to brush or floss correctly. 

Limit your acidic liquid intake: 

Acidic foods and drinks, such as carbonated drinks, wine and citrus foods can wear away at your tooth enamel over time. Drink water and/or swish water around your teeth after consuming acidic foods or beverages. 

Stop clenching your teeth:

Grinding your teeth can wear away your enamel, which may cause tooth sensitivity. You can prevent this by addressing your stress levels or by having your dentist fit you for a splint or mouthguard. 

Break from bleaching:

Teeth whitening treatments can cause tooth sensitivity. However, this is usually temporary. If you continue to have problems after bleaching your teeth, talk to your dentist about whether you should continue this treatment. 

Regular dental checkups:

Regular checkups help to identify potential problems early to support healthy teeth and gums.

If you’re experiencing tooth sensitivity, consult with your dentist on the cause and available treatment options.