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What You Should Know About Tooth Sensitivity

Tooth Sensitivity

What Does Tooth Sensitivity Mean?

If mundane daily activities such as oral hygiene, eating, or drinking cause discomfort or sharp pain, it may be a sign that something isn't right. For example, you may be experiencing dentin hypersensitivity (DH), commonly called sensitive teeth. It's estimated that between 11.5% and 33.5% of people live with DH. But what does it mean, and what can you do about it? Read on to learn more.

What Causes Tooth Sensitivity?

Your enamel is a layer of minerals that protects the more sensitive and vital parts of your teeth. The dentin is a layer of mineralized tissue that sits just beneath the enamel and protects the nerves of your teeth from hot and cold. Finally, the pulp makes up the innermost section of the tooth. It is made up of blood vessels and nerves, and it extends through your gums into your jaw.

While your enamel is tough enough to withstand the forces of chewing, it isn't indestructible. Enamel can wear away over time, exposing the dentin underneath it. Tooth sensitivity starts as a mild discomfort when the enamel becomes thin enough that outside stimuli can affect the dentin. If the dentin is completely exposed and begins wearing away, tooth sensitivity can become a significant problem that causes intense nerve pain.

Several factors go into the development of tooth sensitivity.

Plaque and Tartar

Plaque is a sticky bacterial colony that arises from leftover food particles in your teeth. It can produce toxins that inflame your gums and eat away at the enamel, causing cavities that lead down into the dentin. Eventually, plaque will harden into tartar, which a hygienist can only remove with specialized tools.

If you don't remain vigilant with your oral hygiene, plaque and tartar will lead to tooth decay and gum disease, which cause damage to tooth structures like enamel. In addition, it's vital to protect your gums from periodontal disease because the soft tissue can wear away and recede, exposing nerves and causing pain.

Eating or Drinking Dietary Acid

Regularly consuming acidic food or drink will also wear down enamel over time. However, the risk of developing DH from acid is more closely related to the amount of time the acid spends in contact with your enamel than how much dietary acid you consume.

Brushing Your Teeth Improperly

While oral hygiene is vital to keeping your teeth healthy, brushing your teeth improperly can damage your enamel and lead to sensitivity. Be sure to use a soft-bristled toothbrush in a circular motion, not a back and forth motion. And avoid brushing with too much force. Quality toothpaste and mouthwash will loosen and dissolve most bacteria and food particles, meaning that you will only require a gentle scrubbing to get rid of them.


Bruxism, or tooth grinding, can slowly erode enamel through constant contact and rubbing. The crowns of your teeth have rough gaps to facilitate chewing. However, these gaps can crack and chip the enamel if dragged across each other.

Tooth Whitening Treatment

Tooth whitening may lead to sensitivity, depending on the strength of the bleaching solution used in the treatment. Therefore, if you want to undergo a tooth whitening treatment, it would be best to start at home with over-the-counter products, which tend to have a more diluted solution, to determine how your teeth will react to the process.  

The Signs And Symptoms Of Tooth Sensitivity

Tooth sensitivity can develop slowly over time, or it can occur suddenly. In addition, sensitivity can affect one specific tooth, several teeth, or every tooth. Everyone experiences tooth sensitivity differently, but the most common symptom is pain that is caused by:

  • Contact with hot or cold foods or beverages
  • Using an alcohol-based mouthwash
  • Cold air passing over the affected teeth
  • The pressure of chewing

If left untreated, tooth sensitivity could potentially progress to become a recurrent toothache, so consult with your dentist about treatment options. You should also see a dentist immediately if you develop a toothache that presents with sharp nerve pain that lasts for hours, bleeding gums, swelling of the face or gums, fever, or pain that radiates through the head, neck, or shoulders.

How Can Your Dentist Treat Tooth Sensitivity?

When you visit your dentist, they will ask you questions about your tooth sensitivity and symptoms. Then, they will perform a series of examinations and tests, usually including a physical exam and an X-ray. The recommended course of treatment depends on the cause of your sensitivity, the severity of your symptoms, and how many teeth are affected. 

Common treatment options include:

  • Topical treatments
  • A dental cleaning
  • Fluoride treatment
  • Dental crowns or fillings
  • Root canal therapy
  • Night splint or tooth guard against bruxism

If you experience sensitivity due to teeth whitening, your dentist may recommend a whitening solution with a lower percentage of peroxide to lessen the chemical reaction. Other solutions to post-whitening sensitivity, such as sodium fluoride or laser treatments, show promise as effective means of reducing sensitivity.

Home Remedies

There are oral hygiene products designed to reduce pain from tooth sensitivity in mild cases. You can use them the same way you use regular products. However, your dentist may be able to recommend a product that would be most appropriate for treating your sensitivity.

How To Avoid Tooth Sensitivity

Some people have teeth that are naturally more sensitive to stimuli than others. However, there are ways to lower the risk of pain and discomfort from sensitivity.

Maintaining proper oral hygiene is vital, but you should avoid using a stiff-bristled brush or brushing your teeth with too much force. Your dentist can help by demonstrating gentler brushing and flossing techniques. And avoid rinsing with an alcohol-based mouthwash to prevent irritation to gums or exposed dentin.

The bristles on your toothbrush can become worn over time, causing them to become rough or uneven. It's best for you to change your toothbrush every two to three months, or sooner if you notice signs of wear and tear.

Limit your exposure to acidic food and drinks like citrus fruit, soda, and certain wines. It will help if you drink through a straw as often as possible and avoid holding beverages in your mouth against your teeth.

Finally, be sure to visit your dentist for regular check-ups and exams. If you are experiencing tooth sensitivity or have any questions about oral health, the team at Palmetto Dental is here to help you. Contact us to set up an appointment today.

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