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Teeth Sensitivity: Things To Know

Updated: Jan 1

Teeth sensitivity is when your dentition feels mild discomfort or sharp pain during everyday activities such as eating, drinking, or speaking. The sensitivity wasn't always there before but it gradually grew more noticeable over time.


gum recession sensitive teeth
sensitive teeth with gum recession

This oral condition is an indication that something pathological may be happening in your mouth. It is your body's way of letting you know that you should seek help so that you can stop it from getting worse.


You can think of it as an S.O.S. signal.


Table of Contents:


Types of teeth sensitivity

Sometimes you can pinpoint what triggers it while other times it may feel spontaneous. Teeth don't have to be sensitive to every trigger, they can be sensitive to some and not others. It is dependent on the individual.


Teeth can be sensitive to:

  • Cold

  • Hot

  • Sweet

  • Sour

  • Spicy

  • Acidic


Signs & Symptoms

Teeth that are sensitive will feel discomfort or even pain when they are triggered by stimuli.


Signs of sensitivity:

  • Discomfort when drinking cold water or other beverages.

  • Sensitivity after eating an acidic meal.

  • Feels worse when you wake up in the morning.

  • When you suck in cold air it feels uncomfortable.

  • Receding gums.


receded gums on upper teeth
receded gums

Most often, teeth with receded gum lines like in the photo above exhibit sensitivity. The exposed root surface is filled with exposed nerve that are not used to stimulation.


Causes

Teeth can become sensitive due to a plethora of oral conditions. There is no singular cause of dentinal hypersensitivity which contributes to the complexity of its treatment.


Causes of tooth sensitivity:

  • Brushing aggressively. Brushing your teeth with a heavy hand especially with a hard bristled brush can result in gum recession which leads to sensitivity. The mouth is a delicate place and you need to treat it with respect.

  • Gum recession. If the gums recede, the sensitive tooth root will become exposed.

  • Gum disease. Untreated gingivitis will lead to periodontitis, which may cause bone loss and gum loss. This will progress towards the gums receding.

  • Pregnancy. Teeth do tend to get more sensitive during pregnancy. You may notice your gums bleeding more as well.

  • Cracked teeth. If you chip or break away the enamel, it can leave the sensitive dentin layer exposed. The purpose of the enamel is to protect the dentin from stimuli.

  • Teeth grinding. Grinding or clenching your teeth will eventually cause enamel wear. This will ultimately lead to and exposed dentin or root surfaces that are sensitive.

  • Teeth whitening products. A common side effect of whitening your teeth is tooth sensitivity. This is to be expected if you're using a high peroxide concentration or if you whiten for an extended period of time.

  • Plaque buildup. Plaque is biofilm consisting of bacteria, having it on your teeth will make them sensitive.

  • Acidic foods. Excessive consumption of acidic foods such as coffee, wine, sodas, citrus fruits, tomatoes, pickles and tea, can erode the enamel.

  • Recent dental procedures. Vital teeth may become sensitive after dental procedures. As an example, for a filling your dentist has to drill away a part of your tooth. If you're not sensitive afterwards, we'd be amazed.

  • Pulpitis. Tooth nerve inflammation either from infection or recent dental work.

  • Missing filling. Losing a tooth filling can certainly result in discomfort.


Alleged causes of sensitive teeth

  • Age. How old you are has no bearing on when your teeth will be sensitive. Sure, older patients may have more sensitivity but that's because they've had more time to develop any of the actual causes of sensitivity. It has nothing to do with age itself though.

  • Mouthwash. Using a mouth rinse will often help your teeth become less sensitive because most of them buffer an acidic oral environment. Less acids in the mouth means decreased symptoms.



Mouth rinses saliva buffering chart
Mouth rinses saliva buffering chart

The chart above shows how even Listerine which often burns will elevate the mouth pH.


Can it be due to an infection?

Teeth sensitivity can be due to an infection but not always. The most obvious infection related conditions would be a fracture, pulpitis, or an abscess.


You may not be able to tell what it is on your own which is why it is important to consult a dentist if you notice anything wrong. If it is indeed an infection, it needs to be treated promptly.


 

Treatments

The vast majority of mild sensitivity is managed at home while the moderate to severe conditions require professional treatment. Which type of treatment you need will depend on how bad your condition is.


Professional

There are many dental procedures which may help alleviate sensitivity for teeth. In some cases, it can even permanently get rid of the discomfort.


duraflor ultra - fluoride varnish box with individual dose packet
Fluoride treatment (varnish)

Dental procedures for sensitivity:

  • Fluoride varnish. Yes, fluoride treatment at the dentist can reduce sensitivity and studies have proven it so! The effects may last for a few months.

  • Dental bonding. Exposed root surfaces or receded gum areas can be covered up and protected with composite bonding.

  • Gum graft. Receded gums can be grown back with a soft tissue graft.

  • Veneers. A porcelain veneer is a longer last alternative to the bonding for sensitivity.

  • Crowns. An extremely sensitive tooth may require a full coverage tooth cap.

  • Root canal. Albeit extreme but if the nerve will not stop being hypersensitive, you could just remove it from the tooth. Afterwards the tooth will be dead and will no longer feel any sensations at all.


At home management

Mild tooth sensitivity can be managed at home with certain oral care products along with altering lifestyle habits. These two factors can help minimize the discomfort enough that it does not disrupt your quality of life.


How to manage sensitive teeth on a day to day basis:

  • Brush gently with a soft bristled brush. If you're using an electric toothbrush, set it to the lowest power setting.

  • Use sensitive toothpaste. Make sure it has stannous fluoride, potassium nitrate, or hydroxyapatite as the desensitizing agents.

  • Reduce consumption of acidic foods. These usually trigger the discomfort or make it worse. You'll be better off not eating so much of them.

  • Maintain good oral hygiene. Brushing with sensitive toothpaste after every meal is ideal if you're able to do it. If you can't brush after eating, at least rinse with mouthwash or even plain water for at least 60 seconds. This will wash away the acids from the sensitive parts of your teeth.

  • Wear night guard. If the discomfort is from worn away teeth, ask your dentist to fabricate a custom night guard. This will prevent your teeth from getting worse.


If you're able to implement most of these recommendations, it should help you immensely in alleviating your discomfort.


Duration

How long does sensitive teeth last?

Sensitive teeth will stay sensitive for as long as the cause remains. In other words, if you don't treat whatever is causing you discomfort it can potentially last forever. When your dentition become sensitive, it usually does so for a reason.


Can sensitive tooth pain go away on its own?

The sensitivity may go away on its own if it was caused by a one time reversible event such as recent dental work. Your tooth may be uncomfortable for a day or two after getting it filled but once you recover, it should dissipate on its own.


However, there are conditions where the sensitivity won't go away on its own such as a fractured tooth or an infection. These require professional treatment in order to get rid of the discomfort permanently. These will not dissipate if you leave them untreated.


When to seek help

You should schedule an appointment with your dentist if your teeth sensitivity gets progressively worse or if it wakes you up at night. Those are indications of conditions that won't go away without professional treatment.


Nonetheless, we still recommend seeking a consultation even if the discomfort is fairly mild. This is especially true if it has been longer than six months since your last dental check up. If you're in Long Island City, our dentists can assist you.



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About the author: Dr David Chen, DDS

Hello, I'm Dr Chen and I'm an actively practicing dentist in Long Island City, NY. I graduated from Columbia University College of Dental Medicine in 2016 but prior to going to dental school I was already working in the dental field. It's been more than a decade since I first got to know dentistry and let me tell you, time flies by quickly. Since then I've developed a fondness for writing, which is how this all got started!

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Medical Disclaimer:

This blog is purely meant for information purposes and should not be used as medical advice. Each situation in your mouth is unique and complex. It is not possible to give advice nor diagnose any oral conditions based on text nor virtual consultations. The best thing to do is to go in person to see your dentist for an examination and consultation so that you can receive the best care possible.

The purpose of all of this oral health information is to encourage you to see your dentist and to inform you of what you may expect during your visit. Due to the unfortunate nature of dentistry, there isn't really any true home remedies that will get rid of dental problems. Roughly 99.99% of them require in-person intervention by a healthcare professional.

Hint: That is the reason why you can't eliminate seeing dentists in your life!

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