According to the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD), approximately 40 million Americans are familiar with tooth sensitivity. This means they feel a short, sharp pain followed by an ache. But the causes of sensitive teeth and steps you can take to find relief often vary from person to person.
Common Causes of Tooth Sensitivity
Lifestyle habits often cause or contribute to tooth sensitivity. One harmful habit, for instance, is aggressively brushing your teeth with a hard-bristled toothbrush, says Eugene Gamble, MClinDent, a periodontics specialist and oral surgeon in the United Kingdom. If you brush too hard you can wear away the outer layer of enamel that protects your teeth, exposing the part of your teeth that contains nerve endings, he says. If exposed, the nerve endings in the layer of teeth tissue known as dentin will send pain signals when stimulated.
Clenching or grinding your teeth can wear away the enamel too, exposing nerves in the teeth and making them more sensitive to changes in temperature and sugary or sticky foods, says Jordan Taylor, DMD, a dentist with Stonecreek Dental Care in Huntsville, Alabama.
Aging can play a role in tooth sensitivity, too. As you get older and your gums recede, the cementum layer below your gum line, which helps attach your tooth to the bone, can wear away. Without cementum, your teeth are more exposed and can become more sensitive, Dr. Gamble says. Gum disease can also cause your gums to recede and result in the nerves becoming more exposed, Dr. Taylor says.
In addition, acid reflux can contribute to sensitive teeth. “Stomach acid is highly acidic, and if you eat foods that cause acid reflux and constantly have stomach acid in your mouth, it can wear down the enamel on your teeth,” Taylor says. “Some of the worst cases of tooth sensitivity occur in people with acid reflux.”
Another possible contributor to sensitive teeth is dental work, such as having a tooth filled. “You may have some sensitivity after getting a filling because your tooth is getting used to a new material that’s not natural,” Taylor says. “Some people also experience sensitivity from procedures like professional whitening,” adds Victoria Veytsman, DDS, of Cosmetic Dental Studios in New York City.
Tips for Managing Sensitive Teeth
The good news about tooth sensitivity is that it typically gets better with time, although progress can be slow, Taylor says. “If the tooth is alive and healthy, it will slowly retract the nerve over time and build secondary dentin as extra insulation from the inside out.”
In the meantime, try these tips to help manage sensitive teeth:
- Watch what you eat. Certain foods can cause tooth sensitivity, including acidic foods such as citrus fruits, sugary foods such as hard candy or soda, or sticky foods such as caramel or toffee. Many people are also sensitive to hot or cold foods, like coffee or ice cream. If you find that a particular food makes your teeth more sensitive, it’s best to avoid it for a while, says John T. Grbic, DMD, a professor of dental medicine and director of the division of foundational sciences at the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine in New York City.
- Consider home treatment. For example, try toothpaste for sensitive teeth. These formulas contain potassium nitrate, an ingredient that temporarily clogs the microscopic holes in teeth that expose the nerves. “This makes it less likely for cold and air to get to the nerve,” Taylor says. Toothpastes and rinses with fluoride can also help, Dr. Veytsman adds, because fluoride helps teeth stay strong. Also, wearing a night guard to prevent teeth grinding can help keep excess forces off of your teeth, she says.
- Talk with your dentist about tooth bonding. Your dentist can advise you on whether bonding over areas of the teeth that are problematic, especially exposed roots, would be helpful, Taylor says.
When to See Your Dentist
It’s important that you keep up with regular dental visits so that excess plaque buildup and gum disease can be prevented or managed because they can contribute to sensitivity as well, Veytsman says.
Cold sensitivity is relatively common, Dr. Grbic says, but heat sensitivity isn’t. If you’re sensitive to hot foods, see your dentist. “It could be something more serious that should be addressed in order to prevent something more serious, like an abscess,” he says.
When talking with your dentist about tooth sensitivity, be sure to explain when it hurts and what helps relieve it, the AGD suggests. These details can help guide your dental care.