Statistics are not clear on just how many American adults suffer from sensitive teeth. Some studies suggest one out of every eight Americans has a problem with tooth sensitivity, while others claim the number is more like three quarters of adults have some form of hypersensitivity in their teeth. Regardless of the prevalence, those who have sensitive teeth know they do because it is a condition classified by its symptom.
It may seem silly to define it, but we do need to distinguish sensitive teeth from toothaches. Tooth sensitivity is a condition that is not necessarily the result of a progressive dental infection, as most toothaches are. Many people experience sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures and/or sweet foods or beverages because of large cavities that are near or in the nerve of the tooth. Others have sensitivity in a tooth because it has a crack or fracture. This is not what we mean when we discuss sensitive teeth.
For our purposes here, we are discussing sensitive teeth that occurs when the teeth are relatively healthy, with no progressive disease present. Sensitive teeth, officially termed dentinal hypersensitivity, is a condition in which the patient feels a painful or uncomfortable sensation when exposing the teeth to relatively normal stimuli.
People with sensitive teeth may find themselves brushing their teeth with lukewarm water or enjoying beverages without ice to avoid the discomfort of the sensitivity.
When teeth are hypersensitive during normal function, the cause can fall into one of two categories, which we will expand and explain. In a healthy, non-sensitive tooth, the nerve within responds normally to stimuli, and the enamel covers all exposed areas of the tooth. Sensitivity occurs when there is a problem with either the nerve or the enamel.
The most common cause of tooth sensitivity is gum recession that exposes the roots of teeth. Roots do not have a protective enamel covering, and they should have a protective covering of gum tissue. When the gums recede, exposing the root, the sensations of cold, hot or sweets can easily reach the nerve within. In these cases, the nerve is “normal”, but it receives sensations it should not receive due to the exposure of the roots.
This type of sensitivity also occurs when there is a loss of enamel covering in areas where enamel should exist. We see this with enamel erosion or attrition, both conditions that gradually wear down enamel, making it thinner and less protective over time.
The opposite situation occurs less frequently, but it is a genuine cause of sensitive teeth. Several conditions can make a nerve hypersensitive to relatively normal stimuli. The cause usually lies in the tissues surrounding the tooth, which can put pressure on the nerve as it enters the tooth through a tiny pore at the tip of each root.
One cause of this type of hypersensitivity is a problem with the bite. When a tooth hits the opposing tooth and receives more biting pressure than it should, this will irritate the nerve inside. This can happen just after dental work or through shifting of the teeth. This condition is aggravated by heavy clenching and/or grinding during sleep.
Another cause of a hypersensitive nerve can be inflammation in the sinus cavities. The upper molars and premolars have roots that project upward into the maxillary sinus cavities. When there is increased pressure from inflammation in the sinuses, it can translate into pressure on the teeth nerves and hypersensitivity.
The first, and most important, step is to see your dentist. As we mentioned in the introduction, there are conditions of sensitivity that result from progressively worsening dental diseases. Your dentist needs to rule these out first. Once you know you do not need dental treatment to stop an active dental disease from worsening, you can begin fighting sensitive teeth.
Your dentist will also help you determine the underlying cause of your sensitivity. For those with a “normal” nerve and loss of enamel, you can take measures to strengthen the hard tissues of your teeth. We typically recommend the use of remineralizing agents in your oral care products. The most prevalent and easy to find is fluoride. This mineral strengthens your enamel and dentin to reduce the sensations that reach your nerves. There are both over-the-counter and prescription products effective in the fight against sensitivity.
Other remineralizing agents you can find in oral care products are:
These ingredients have all shown effectiveness in reducing sensitivity in otherwise healthy teeth.
For those with a hypersensitive nerve and normal healthy enamel, you will need to address the increased pressure the teeth receive. This may involve wearing a protective mouthguard during sleep to separate the teeth and reduce clenching pressure. Sometimes, your dentist will need to adjust the shape of a tooth to alter the amount of force it receives when you bite.
If your doctor determines that sinus inflammation could be causing the sensitivity, he or she may refer you to see your primary care physician or an ENT to address any sinus issues.
Let’s say you have tried all of the over-the-counter products claiming to reduce sensitivity in your teeth and have had no success. You may need to ask your dentist for professional treatments to help you address the problem with sensitivity.
Your dentist can prescribe oral care products with powerful remineralizing agents or apply a professional fluoride treatment to the teeth while you are there for a teeth cleaning appointment.
In cases of gum recession that cause disruptive sensitivity, you can discuss your options to cover the exposed roots. We can cover the roots with a bonded tooth-colored filling that seals the roots as an artificial layer of enamel. You can also consider a gum procedure that repositions the gum tissues in order to cover the exposed roots. Gum grafting will not only alleviate the discomfort of tooth sensitivity (the kind caused by gum recession); it will also improve the stability and support of your teeth.
Call your nearest Premier Dental of Ohio location today to schedule a consultation with one of our compassionate dentists. We can answer any other question you have about tooth sensitivity and assess your specific situation. Understanding the cause of your sensitivity will help you take the right steps toward fighting it.