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Sensitive Teeth Causes and How to Respond

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The thought of ice cream or hot soup may be appetizing for most people, but it's cringe-worthy for those who have sensitive teeth. Fortunately, there is no need to suffer in silence. Teeth may become sensitive for different reasons; your primary dentist or dental hygienist can determine the cause and a proper response.

Common Causes

The top or crown of a tooth is covered by enamel, which is protective to the underlying, more sensitive layer of dentin. The root also has underlying dentin that is covered with a protective layer of cementum. And a little break in the enamel can lead to sensitivity. The cause of this break can be tooth decay, fractured tooth structure or even worn-away enamel from grinding your teeth at night. In this case, treatment for sensitivity will require repairing the tooth.

Gum disease can also lead to teeth developing sensitivity. Receding gums allow the root of the tooth to become exposed and, eventually, covered with plaque and tartar. With a thorough cleaning by your dentist and improving your personal oral hygiene, the sensitivity will improve. Nonetheless, the natural exposure of the neck of the tooth – below the end of the enamel – can still lead to this problem without initial decay or gum disease.

After your dentist has ruled out some of these causes, he or she can provide a treatment regimen. It may be both an in-office and at-home approach.

Chairside Treatment

In-office dental therapies are based on creating a surface seal on the exposed areas of dentin. Your dentin has microscopic openings called tubules, which, as explained by the American Dental Association (ADA), can let the nerve inside the center of the tooth become affected by temperature changes. Thus, fluoride can be applied to help seal these tubules. Dentists also use other chemicals that form crystals in the tubules, sealing them off. Bonding or white fillings applied to exposed areas can be used in areas that do not respond to fluoride or other chemical treatments. In advanced cases, a root canal may be required to get rid of the sensitivity in a tooth.

At-Home Treatment

Your dentist may write you a prescription for daily at-home therapy. These therapies, contain high levels of sodium fluoride that you place on the teeth while you brush. Using a brush or even a cottom swab, applying this varnish puts a film on your enamel to protect the dentin so your sensitivity can diminish naturally over time.

Are My Teeth Sensitive?'

Many people know they just have sensitive teeth from time to time, and need some over-the-counter help to keep it at bay. Luckily, several toothpastes are even effective in combating this occasional sensitivity. Toothpaste for sensitive teeth should be applied twice daily for several weeks to decrease your sensitivity.

If your lifestyle is being affected by teeth that can't handle certain foods, see your dentist or dental hygienist. Rest assured there are very effective treatments available, and you can start healing your teeth today for a bowl of ice cream tomorrow.

Learn more about how swimming pools can damage your enamel in the Colgate Oral Care resources.


About the author: James Burke Fine, DMD, is Assistant Dean for Postdoctoral Programs, Professor of Clinical Dentistry, and Director of Post Graduate Periodontics at Columbia University College of Dental Medicine, New York. He has been a principal investigator or co-investigator in funded research projects and has authored or co-authored numerous articles, chapters, and abstracts in the literature regarding periodontal disease, including co-authoring the text Clinical Guide to Periodontics. In addition, Fine has presented at invited lectures and seminars. He maintains a practice limited to periodontics in Hoboken, NJ, and in the faculty practice at Columbia University.