Sensitive Information: A Patient’s Guide to Sensitive Teeth

  • Published
  • By Capt. (Dr.) Kelly Ramey
  • 22nd Aerospace Medicine Squadron
Last week was the official start of summer, and for many folks frozen treats hit the spot on hot, sunny days. For those people with sensitive teeth, however, a taste of ice cream may make one wince with discomfort.

Sensitive teeth are a common condition characterized by sharp, sudden pain in one or more teeth. It is often triggered by hot, cold, or sweet foods and drinks.

In order to understand why teeth become sensitive, one must first know how they are structured. A layer of enamel, the strongest substance in the body, protects the crowns of healthy teeth. A layer of cementum protects the tooth root under the gum line. Underneath these two layers is dentin, an inner part of the tooth that is less dense and contains many small hollow canals. These canals allow hot, cold or sweet foods to stimulate the nerves inside the tooth.

Some of the causes of sensitive teeth include tooth decay, a cracked tooth, dental procedures such as tooth removal and fillings, and tooth roots that are exposed due to aggressive tooth brushing, gum recession, or gum disease. When there is tooth decay or when a tooth is cracked, certain parts of the tooth may no longer be protected by enamel. Clenching or grinding teeth may also wear down tooth enamel, leaving the dentin exposed.

After removal of a tooth, it is common for the neighboring teeth to experience some sensitivity. Especially in the case of an impacted wisdom tooth, removal of a tooth temporarily changes the gum tissue and bone protecting the neighboring teeth. This sensitivity usually resolves in about four to six weeks following the removal of a tooth.

New fillings may also result in temporary sensitivity. Most fillings contain metal, which conducts temperature and may stimulate the nerves inside the tooth. Usually, the sensitivity is worse within the first few weeks after placement; however, sensitivity may last for several months depending on the filling size and depth.

Brushing too hard can cause the enamel and cementum to wear, leaving the dentin exposed. Aggressive brushing can also cause gums to recede exposing tooth roots. Poor oral hygiene can cause gum tissue to separate from a tooth and form spaces called pockets also exposing tooth roots.

Sensitive teeth can be treated. If the sensitivity is related to tooth decay or a cracked tooth, a dentist may recommend a filling or crown. If it is related to clenching or grinding teeth, a dentist may recommend a night guard to protect the enamel and prevent further wear.

Proper oral hygiene is an important part of treating sensitive teeth. This includes using a soft-bristled tooth brush twice a day and flossing regularly. A dentist may also recommend the use of sensitive toothpaste. These toothpastes, which can be found at any local grocery or drug store, contain ingredients that clog the canals. Sensitive toothpaste needs to be used daily for approximately four weeks before the sensitivity is reduced, and continued use is necessary to maintain benefit.

For conditions that are severe and persistent, consult a dentist. Additional information regarding sensitive teeth can be found on display at the base dental clinic.

Contributing sources: American Dental Association and Academy of General Dentistry. For additional information, contact the dental office at 759-6300.