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Sensitive Teeth - What You Need To Know

Updated on August 8, 2010

When everything is perfect, your teeth are covered by a protective layer. The roots are covered by bone and gums, and the tooth above the gum line is covered by enamel. 

But when the protective covering is breached – e.g. by tooth decay, acid erosion, toothbrush abrasion or by the gums receding – the underlying layers are exposed. And that hurts.

In the centre of each tooth is the pulp, which contains the nerves and blood vessels. Between this and the outer protective covering is the dentine. Dentine is made up of thousands of tiny tubes (tubules) radiating out from the pulp. These tubules are not sealed at either end. They contain fluid which moves when exposed to heat, cold or sugar. This movement stimulates the nerves in the pulp, causing pain.

If you have sensitive teeth, you need to take the following steps:

  1. Find out what is causing the problem – tooth decay, a cracked tooth, gum recession, erosion or whatever. All of these require treatment or the problem will get worse – so don’t be tempted just to ease the sensitivity. You need to tell your dentist that you have a sensitive tooth or teeth so that the cause can be accurately diagnosed and appropriately treated.
  2. When a stable situation has been achieved with no active destruction taking place, you may be left with some residual sensitivity from uncovered dentine tubules. This is where sensitive toothpastes come in. The older types of sensitive toothpastes contain chemicals such as potassium citrate to soothe the nerves in the pulp. You need to use these regularly for a few weeks to get a result. 

The newer sensitive toothpastes, like Colgate Sensitive Pro Relief, achieve a more immediate effect by sealing the end of the dentine tubules. The benefit will increase with continued use. 

Of course you don’t have to have your teeth checked before you start using a sensitive toothpaste but the worry is that, if you’re not having any discomfort, you might not bother to see the dentist and an developing problem will get worse – eventually to the point where the tooth is no longer saveable.

It’s a good rule always to treat pain as a warning signal. Of course you want to get rid of it but you also need to find out WHY it is there.

For practical advice on how to keep your teeth healthy, comfortable and beautiful for life, check out Watch Your Mouth, an Owner's Manual

Tom Nolan is a dentist with over 30 years experience in all branches of cosmetic and general dentistry. He is The Dentist in Town



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