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Why are my teeth so sensitive?

Updated on July 5, 2011

With summer just about in full-swing, it seems appropriate to ask a timely and important question: Do you have a love-hate relationship with ice cream? Tooth sensitivity affects many people and has a variety of causes, some are obvious and some are not… but all of them are treatable. Unfortunately, most people who experience this annoying condition never discuss it with their dentist because they assume that nothing can be done. Healthy, living teeth have a nerve at their center, and it is normal for them to respond to dramatic temperature changes, but if you experience extreme or lingering responses to temperature, touch or sweet foods, help is available!

Tooth enamel, or the white layer that covers the visible part of the tooth is the hardest substance in the body and it has a protective effect, shielding the softer layers of the tooth from temperature changes and decay-causing bacteria. Directly underlying the enamel is a layer of dentin, which is composed of microscopic tubes that lead to the pulp of the tooth where the nerve is housed. It shouldn’t be very surprising that one would experience discomfort or pain when the protective enamel is damaged or missing. As a matter of fact, some of the most common causes of tooth sensitivity include chips, cracks or fractures in the enamel which expose the underlying dentin.

When a tooth seems to respond primarily to sweets, a leaky filling or a cavity may be the culprit…substances in the mouth may have access to the dentin even though the defect may not be visible to the eye. Fortunately, your cosmetic dentist can diagnose these problems with an oral examination and an x-ray; and he can usually repair them with a simple filling or crown. Pain that occurs as in response to heat, such as when drinking hot coffee or soup is a serious concern often indicating that an infection is present, in which case your dentist may advise that a root canal is necessary in order to save the tooth.

Hypersensitivity can be particularly severe for almost 90% of people who have exposed roots as a result of bone loss and gum recession from periodontal disease, or from habitually aggressive tooth brushing. If you happen to be among the roughly 60% of people who experience an extreme response to temperature, touch or certain sweet or acidic foods even though there is no apparent disease or defect, you may be suffering from dentin hypersensitivity, a condition believed to be caused by fluid movement in the miscroscopic tubes of the dentin layer. There are still a number of things that can be done to alleviate your discomfort. Desensitiziong toothpastes contain ingredients such as potassium nitrate, potassium chloride or potassium citrate which seem to chemically alter the ability of the tooth nerve to sense pain, but there is some evidence that rinsing the toothpaste out may dilute the effect. Regular applications of a prescription strength Fluoride at home, and in-office applications of Fluoride varnish reduce sensitivity over time and is an effective, inexpensive solution for many. It works because fluoride is absorbed into the tooth, filling in and “sealing” the exposed dentin tubes. Your dentist can also apply one of several topical medicines to the tooth surfaces for long term temporary relief.

Severe abrasion or wear of the enamel that has caused sensitivity can be easily and permanently repaired with a cosmetically appealing white filling or bonding agent. You can also minimize or prevent dentin hypersensitivity by making a few
simple changes in your lifestyle and diet:

• Reduce acid containing foods. Summer is a great time to enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables, but citrus fruits, strawberries and tomatos are notorious for making sensitivity worse!

• Avoid or reduce acidic drinks such as wine and soda.

• Always use a soft tooth brush and make sure to use a safe, American dental Association
recomended technique. Mechanical brushes are excellent but can be very destructive if
misused. Your dental hygienist can answer all your home care questions!

• Try a desensitizing toothpaste and a fluoride rinse or gel. Several good ones are available over
the counter and if that doesn’t help enough, your dentist can prescribe something stronger.

• Minimize the use of whitening products until the sensitivity subsides.

• Skip the polish at your next cleaning appointment! The polishing paste is abrasive and may
temporarily heighten your sensitivity… and Its not the most important part of the cleaning
anyway, especially if your teeth are not stained.

Tooth sensitivity can be significantly reduced and even completely cured or in many cases,
depending upon the cause. Don’t suffer in silence, and don’t miss out on the best treats of summer. Discuss your sensitivity concerns with your dentist and dental hygienist… and have two scoops next time!


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