Have you ever sipped a hot or cold drink, or spooned your favorite ice cream and felt a rod of pain shoot through your teeth? If so, you might have sensitive teeth, a treatable condition that affects at least 45 million U.S. adults at some point in their lives.
Sensitive teeth occur when the gums recede and expose the surface beneath, called the dentin. This soft layer makes up the inner part and roots, which have thousands of tiny tubes that lead to the tooth’s nerve center. When the dentin is exposed, triggers—such as hot, cold, or sweet food—reach the nerve in the tooth, which sets off the pain.
Here are the top 10 reasons for sensitive teeth, along with simple ways to treat the problem.
- Brushing too hard. If you brush your teeth vigorously, you may be doing more harm than good. Brushing too hard or using a hard-bristled toothbrush can wear down the tooth’s root surface and expose the dentin. Take a look at your toothbrush. If the bristles are flattened or pointing in multiple directions, you’re putting too much pressure on your teeth. Toss the brush and buy a soft-bristled one.
- Using the wrong toothpaste. Some toothpastes increase tooth sensitivity. These include whitening toothpastes that lighten or remove stains from enamel and tartar-control toothpastes containing sodium pyrophosphate. Choose toothpastes specially made for sensitive teeth. These products have an active ingredient, potassium nitrate, which helps block the tiny tubules in the dentin. But be patient; you may need to use these products regularly for at least a month before you notice any therapeutic benefits. Massaging the toothpaste onto your gums with your finger after brushing may produce results faster.
- Brushing too soon. If you brush your teeth too soon after eating or drinking acidic substances, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Brushing softens enamel and makes it more vulnerable to erosion. If you’ve eaten an acidic food or drink, wait at least 30 minutes before brushing. If you know you’re going to eat or drink something acidic, brush your teeth beforehand.
- Grinding your teeth. Grinding or clenching your teeth may wear the enamel and expose the dentin. Some of us are unaware that we grind our teeth in our sleep. But if you wake up with a sore jaw or a headache, you may be grinding or clenching. Talk to your dentist, who can prescribe a night guard to protect your teeth.
- Plaque buildup. The presence of plaque on the root surfaces can cause sensitivity. That’s why it’s critical to schedule routine cleanings with your dental hygienist.
- Using mouthwash. That minty fresh feeling you get after using mouthwash may feel great. But certain mouthwashes contain acids that can worsen sensitivity worse if the dentin is already exposed. Ask your dentist about a neutral fluoride solution.
- Whitening your teeth. Nothing looks nicer than a gorgeous, white smile. But tooth-whitening products are major contributors to sensitivity. Your dentist may recommend a fluoride treatment to reduce symptoms of tooth sensitivity.
- Eating acidic foods. Food and drinks with a high acid content, which can wear down the enamel. These include citrus fruits, soda, tomatoes, pickles and tea. To minimize contact with the teeth, use a straw when drinking soda or tea. And cut down on eating highly acidic foods.
- Dental work. Teeth cleaning, root planing, crown placement and tooth restoration can make teeth sensitive. This sensitivity should go away in four to six weeks.
- Damaged teeth. Chipped or broken teeth can cause sensitivity. Furthermore, bacteria can enter the pulp, causing inflammation and pain. See your dentist immediately if a tooth is chipped or broken.
Tooth sensitivity doesn’t have to be a way of life. Following these tips can help reduce your symptoms so you can eat and drink the things you like without worrying about pain. If you have a tooth that is highly sensitive and causes pain for more than three or four days and reacts to both hot and cold temperatures, get an evaluation from your dentist to determine the extent of the problem.