Do you suffer from sensitive teeth?


Do you pass on hot or cold drinks because you know they will make your teeth hurt? Does the idea of ice cream make you wince? Sometimes other things can aggravate teeth too, like sweet and sour foods or even cold air.

To be able to treat these tooth twinges, it helps to know what might be behind them. Once you’ve nailed down the cause, you can find a solution.

What causes sensitive teeth?

The part of the tooth we can see has a layer of enamel that protects the softer dentine underneath. If the underlying dentine is exposed, a tooth can become sensitive.

Here are some causes of sensitivity:

  • Brushing too hard (‘toothbrush abrasion’), and brushing from side to side, can cause enamel to be worn away – particularly where the teeth meet the gums. The freshly exposed dentine may then become sensitive.
  • Dental erosion: this is loss of tooth enamel caused by attacks of acid from acidic food and drinks. If enamel is worn away, the dentine underneath is exposed which may lead to sensitivity.
  • Gums may naturally recede (shrink back), and the roots of the teeth will become exposed and can be more sensitive. Root surfaces do not have an enamel layer to protect them.
  • Gum disease: a build-up of plaque or tartar can cause the gum to recede down the tooth and even destroy the bony support of the tooth.
  • Tooth grinding: this is a habit which involves clenching and grinding the teeth together. This can cause the enamel of the teeth to be worn away, making the teeth sensitive.
  • A cracked tooth or filling: a cracked tooth is one that has become broken. A crack can run from the biting surface of a tooth down towards the root. Extreme temperatures, especially cold, may cause discomfort.

How can I prevent sensitive teeth?

  • Acids produced by dental plaque will make sensitivity worse if it is not removed.  The use of the correct techniques for brushing and cleaning in between the teeth will effectively remove the plaque.  Speak to our hygienist and they will be able to advise you on the right techniques.
  • Use an electric tooth brush to minimise toothbrush abrasion. The modern electric toothbrushes will indicate if you are pressing the brush too hard. Always choose a soft brush instead of a hard one.
  • The use of desensitising toothpastes can help to reduce sensitivity. The desensitising ingredient in the toothpaste needs to be in contact with the tooth surface for some time to be effective. Use the desensitising toothpaste as a normal toothpaste. After brushing spit out any excess, but do not rinse. The toothpaste can take a few weeks to be effective. Use the toothpaste on a long-term basis as the sensitivity may re-occur.
  • Acids and sugars found in foods and drinks such as fruit juice, carbonated drinks, tomatoes etc soften the tooth surface.  To prevent the softened enamel being brushed away, wait at least 30 minutes before brushing your teeth, to give your saliva time to neutralise the acid.
  • Have sugary foods, and fizzy and acidic drinks, less often. Try to have them just at mealtimes and rinse your mouth with water after eating acidic foods and drinks.
  • If you grind your teeth, talk to your dental team about whether you should have a mouthguard made, to wear at night.
  • Visit your dental team regularly, as often as they recommend.

What treatments can the dentist offer?

During an examination the dental team will talk to you about your symptoms. They will look at your teeth to find out what is causing the sensitivity and to find the best way of treating it.

The dental team may treat the affected teeth with special ‘de-sensitising’ products to help relieve the symptoms. Fluoride gels, rinses or varnishes can be applied to sensitive teeth. These can be painted onto the teeth at regular appointments one or two weeks apart, to build up some protection. Sensitivity can take some time to settle, and you may need to have several appointments. If this still does not help, your dental team may seal or fill around the neck of the tooth, where the tooth and gum meet, to cover exposed dentine.

Minna Miettinen