Does ice cream give your teeth a jolt? What about a hot cup of coffee? On a cold winter’s day, do you find yourself pressing your lips together to protect your teeth from the cold air? Does the thought of a dental hygienist using a scaler on your teeth make you shudder?
These reactions are typical for people with dental sensitivity, which might be more accurately described as hypersensitivity. Sensitivity can result from any number of triggers: most commonly cold but also heat, sugary foods, and physical stimulation. It is extremely common; some studies suggest that more than half of all people experience it. But just because it is common does not mean it should be accepted as a fact of life. However mild or severe, whatever brings it on, dental sensitivity can now be relieved through a variety of treatments. This article gives an overview of what exactly sensitivity is and what you can do about it.
What causes sensitivity?
A short anatomy lesson will help explain how teeth become sensitive, and how both over-the-counter and professional products work to stop the sensitivity.
There are two main parts to each tooth (plus the center, where the main nerve and blood supply are located). The first part of the tooth — the crown — is the visible part, the part that’s used for chewing. The crown is covered by a very hard outer shell called enamel. A bacterial infection or acidic foods can dissolve the enamel, creating tiny holes that can get bigger and lead to the formation of what is commonly called a cavity. If left untreated, a cavity can continue to enlarge until the bacteria and acid reach the nerve and blood supply of the tooth, causing pain. This type of pain is very different from normal sensitivity: It typically hurts more, and its underlying causes are different. If you have pain caused by a cavity, you’ll need to see a dentist to have the decayed material removed and replaced with a filling material.
The second part of the tooth is the root. The root extends into the bone of the jaw and keeps the tooth firmly in place. The root consists of a material called dentin. At first glance dentin looks solid, but it’s really filled with tiny tubes, called tubules, that connect the outside of the root to the nerve center of the tooth. When part of the root becomes exposed — usually where it meets the crown of the tooth — the tubules provide a direct channel to the nerve of the tooth, leading to sensitivity. Exposed tubules eventually grow closed as the tooth adapts to this exposure, but for most of us this natural process is too slow. We need relief now!
Another reason that a tooth may be sensitive is if it is cracked. This can happen as a result of an injury (such as getting hit in the face) or because a large filling expands and creates a fracture. If the sensitivity products described below don’t give relief, a dentist should be consulted; very often, he will find a crack, and the tooth will need a crown.
One major culprit in root exposure is overly aggressive or abrasive toothbrushing. If you experience sensitivity, a good way to start addressing the problem is to use a soft-bristled toothbrush and to apply only light pressure when brushing. Using a less abrasive toothpaste can also help. Since it’s nearly impossible to figure out on your own which toothpastes are less abrasive, ask a dental professional to recommend a good, gentle toothpaste.
When brushing, use a very small amount of toothpaste; a drop the size of a pea is all you need. If you always start brushing in the same area of your mouth, switch the starting place periodically — having the bulk of toothpaste applied to the same few teeth every time can lead to abrasion. This effect is often compounded by the fact that the bristles of toothbrushes are stiffest and most irritating at the beginning of brushing.