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Treating Dental Sensitivity
At Home and in the Dentist's Office

by Shirley Gutkowski, RDH, BSDH, FACE

Whitening products
Some over-the-counter tooth-whitening products contain ingredients that can set off sensitivity. Whitening products, even those applied in the dentist’s office, dry out the teeth. Over the first few days after whitening, the teeth rehydrate and the sensitivity tends to go away on its own. Using a sensitivity-reducing toothpaste for a few weeks before whitening can help prevent the problem.

When deciding on an over-the-counter whitening product, look for one with a high concentration of hydrogen peroxide. These products are more effective at lightening tooth color and less likely to cause sensitivity. Also look for one with no acidic ingredients (such as citric or malic acid), since these can damage the enamel of your teeth. A dental professional may be able to help you select a safe and nonirritating whitening product.

Help in the dentist’s chair
When you go in for professional dental care, let your care provider know that your teeth are sensitive to cold foods or liquids, or whatever the trigger may be. There is now an array of products that can make you more comfortable both during dental treatments and outside the dentist’s office.

The products that tend to work best contain a form of calcium phosphate, a group of compounds that make up tooth enamel. These products are buffed onto the teeth with the same kind of polisher normally used to polish your teeth at the end of a routine cleaning. The calcium phosphate particles get pushed into the exposed tubules for almost instant relief of sensitivity before any dental procedure. This can mean an end to the discomfort caused by the scaling, rinsing, and polishing that happen during professional cleanings.

Another way that sensitivity-relief treatments can be applied is by using an air polisher. Air polishers have been in use since the 1970’s but have recently seen an increase in popularity. In their normal use, a mix of air, water, and sodium bicarbonate is sprayed at high pressure onto the teeth to remove plaque and stains. This is especially effective when preparing a tooth for a sealant. For treatment of sensitivity, however, a calcium phosphate powder can be used to instantly plug the open tubules that cause the problem. This delivers relief so quickly that most people are not even bothered by the air polishing itself.

Fluoride — the old standard of anticavity treatments, both in the dentist’s office and in toothpaste — can also be used to treat sensitivity. New fluoride varnishes offer a highly concentrated form of fluoride that is applied directly to sensitive areas by a dental professional; the varnish hardens and remains for several hours. While this treatment tends not to give relief as quickly or surely as calcium phosphate-based treatments, it may be worth a try for some people. Both treatments last for about six months.

Some dental practices charge extra for fluoride- or calcium phosphate-based sensitivity treatments given during regular cleaning; others do not. Since these treatments can give relief for many months, it may be worth it to pay a bit extra to receive them. For nearly everyone, these simple procedures relieve sensitivity at least long enough to let them relax during their dental appointment.

When calcium phosphate or targeted fluoride treatments are not effective, applying what is known as a resin barrier may do the trick. Just as sealants are often applied to the biting surfaces of molars to protect against cavities, a barrier can be applied to the exposed root of affected teeth to guard against sensitivity. This procedure is relatively simple: First, the exposed root is cleaned of any stains or debris. Next the resin is applied in a thin, clear liquid coat. The resin is then cured with a blue light, just like when sealants are applied to teeth. Although these barriers are intended to last for six months, many people find that they remain effective for much longer.

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