Worn Tooth Enamel
Enamel is the outer covering of each tooth that protects the dentin inside. When the protective enamel breaks down, heat, cold, and acidity can penetrate the cells and nerves of the dentin. The nerves send the pain signals that you feel. Eroded enamel also makes it easier for plaque to infect a tooth, leading to tooth decay.
Some people have thinner tooth enamel than others, making them more susceptible to sensitivity. However, there are many contributors to enamel loss. These include:
Brushing Too Hard—Using a toothbrush with stiff bristles and/or brushing too vigorously can wear down tooth enamel.
Teeth Grinding—This habit can cause more than a sore jaw. Damaged enamel is one of the long-term effects of teeth grinding.
Sugary and Acidic Foods—Sugar and acid decrease the mineral content in tooth enamel, weakening it. Regularly consuming soft drinks, candy, citrus fruits, tomato sauce, pickles, coffee, tea, wine, and other acidic and sugary foods can erode enamel.
Frequent Teeth Whitening—Some teeth whitening products include chemicals that can wear down tooth enamel over time. Peroxide, in particular, can irritate sensitive tooth nerves.
Below the gum line, the nerve-rich root of each tooth is protected by a thin, hard layer of tissue called cementum. The gums themselves also provide protection. When gum tissue recedes, it pulls down and away from the tooth’s root, exposing it to heat, cold, and acidity. The gap or pocket between the tooth root and gum line also creates a haven for disease-causing bacteria.
Tooth sensitivity is often the first sign of gum recession, which happens gradually. The tooth may also appear longer than the surrounding teeth since more of it is visible.
Receding gums are most often caused by gum disease, which may have many contributing factors. Some—such as hormonal changes and hereditary factors—can’t be prevented. However, daily flossing and gentle twice-daily brushing can go a long way in reducing your chances of gum disease and recession.
If you feel sensitivity in only one tooth or part of the mouth, it may result from tooth damage. Tooth decay (cavities), chipped and broken teeth, or worn fillings or crowns can expose the inner tooth dentin, causing sensitivity and pain.
What You Should Do
If you’re bothered by tooth sensitivity, consult your dentist. They can determine the root cause of your sensitivity and provide a treatment plan.
Your dentist will ask you questions and examine your teeth and gums. They may check for loose fillings, use instruments to check for sensitivity, and/or take gum measurements. They may also order an X-ray to rule out underlying causes like cavities.
Treatment for sensitive teeth is dependent on the root cause. For example, if a cavity is behind the sensitivity, a proper filling should help alleviate the issue. For ongoing sensitivity, the dentist may recommend over-the-counter or prescription toothpaste for sensitive teeth, dental sealants, a mouth guard if the problem is due to teeth grinding, or other treatments. For severe gum recession, a procedure called a gum graft can cover the sensitive roots.
There are actions you can take to help prevent sensitive teeth:
Brush at Least Twice Daily—Use a soft-bristled toothbrush and a non-abrasive toothpaste (ask your dentist for recommendations). Don’t scrub your teeth; use gentle strokes.
Floss Daily—This will help prevent cavities, gum disease, and receding gums.
Use a Mouth Guard If Needed—If you clench your teeth during the day or grind them at night, ask your dentist about a mouth guard. This will help prevent pain and damage.
Keep Acidic and Sugary Foods Off Your Teeth—Limiting sugary foods can be a healthy habit all around. When you eat or drink acidic foods, drink water afterward to balance the acid levels in your mouth. You can use a straw to keep sugary and acidic beverages away from your teeth. Enamel doesn’t grow back once it’s worn away, so protecting it is important.
Visit Your Dentist Twice a Year—A twice-yearly exam and cleaning can help prevent the underlying causes of tooth sensitivity and spot potential issues before they become a problem.