Sensitive teeth are a common dental health issue that most people experience at least once in their life. While your first thought may be that you have cavities when you feel pain as you eat or drink something cold, hot or sweet, the truth is that there are many different reasons for tooth sensitivity. Understanding why this sensitivity happens helps you work with your dentist to find the best treatment to bring you relief.
What Do Sensitive Teeth Feel Like?
In most cases, pain as you eat or breathe through your mouth are the first signs of sensitivity. Unlike severe dental pain, you will most likely feel a brief instance of discomfort that quickly goes away once the irritating factor is removed.
Hot, cold and acidic foods are the most common irritants for to a sensitive tooth, but you may also feel pain if cold air hits your teeth. People often complain that they briefly feel pain when they first bite into something with an extreme temperature such as ice cream or very hot coffee.
What Makes Teeth Sensitive?
Approximately half of the adult population has tooth sensitivity, and your risk of developing it goes up with age. This condition has several different causes that your dentist will look for during your appointment. Gum recession, enamel erosion, tooth decay and cracks in your teeth are a few of the most common reasons why you may suddenly be dealing with sensitivity in your teeth.
In healthy teeth, a layer of enamel protects the crowns of your teeth—the part above the gum line. Under the gum line a layer called cementum protects the tooth root. Underneath both the enamel and the cementum is dentin.
Dentin is less dense than enamel and cementum and contains microscopic tubules (small hollow tubes or canals). When dentin loses its protective covering of enamel or cementum these tubules allow heat and cold or acidic or sticky foods to reach the nerves and cells inside the tooth. Dentin may also be exposed when gums recede. The result can be hypersensitivity.
What is Gum Recession?
Your gums are made up of soft tissue that responds to changes in your overall health and lifestyle. Gum disease is the primary cause of recession since the tissue naturally begins to erode and pull away from the teeth as infection sets in. You can also irritate your gums by being too aggressive with your oral hygiene routine. Brushing too rough or using a brush with hard bristles can cause your gums to recede.
Once your gums recede enough, you can begin to see the yellowish part of your tooth root peeking through. This has less enamel and more dentin at the surface, which is sensitive to temperatures and acids in your food. Sadly, your gums do not grow back once they are gone or receded. However, your dentist does have treatment options that can stop the recession and help cover any exposed tooth roots. Gum treatment and health are important for overall healthy oral health.
Can Sensitivity Come and Go?
One of the most confusing aspects of tooth sensitivity is that it can come and go. This can cause you to think that the problem is over until it comes back again. Your mouth is constantly undergoing changes as it is bombarded by things such as the food you eat and even the environment in which you are living. You may not feel sensitivity for a few days if food particles or plaque temporarily blocks an exposed root or fills in a cavity. Alternatively, you may just not feel pain because you haven’t eaten anything hot or cold enough in the past few days. If your sensitivity is caused by something such as nighttime tooth grinding, then it may also go away during periods when you are not engaging in the behavior.
Is Tooth Sensitivity Preventable?
As with many dental health conditions, prevention is your best bet toward avoiding long term pain. Although you cannot stop the natural recession that occurs with aging, you can develop lifestyle habits that helps to slow the process. For instance, you may need to have your dentist check your tooth-brushing technique to make sure that you are not putting unnecessary pressure on the sensitive gum tissue. You can also make sure to treat tooth decay and the signs of gum disease as early as possible so that they do not lead to lingering pain.
How Do Dentists Treat Sensitive Teeth?
A diagnosis for a sensitivity tooth is often done after a thorough exam that identities all possible causes. Your treatment plan is developed to address each potential cause for the pain you feel in your teeth. In some cases, your dentist may recommend getting cavities filled or having a special cleaning to halt gum disease in its tracks. You may also be prescribed a special mouth rinse or toothpaste that helps to reduce sensitivity along the gum line and tooth root. If you grind your teeth at night, then you might need to wear a mouthguard as you sleep.
Getting to the bottom of tooth sensitivity requires you to work closely with your dentist to identify the cause so that you receive the appropriate treatment. Remember that pain should never be considered normal when you eat or breathe, so be sure to mention it at your next appointment. If your tooth sensitivity is mild, then it could be as simple as using a prescribed toothpaste or switching up your technique to bring back your comfort.