Tooth Sensitivity: Getting to the Root of It

What causes tooth sensitivity in the first place? Common triggers include a cavity or crack in the tooth, but it might also be due to the erosion of tooth enamel.

If you frequently get that "zing" feeling while biting into something sweet, cold, hot, or sour, you could have sensitive teeth. Although it can be quite uncomfortable, it's pretty common—and there are some easy fixes.

The American Dental Association (ADA) explains that a layer of enamel, the strongest substance in the body, protects the crowns of healthy teeth. A layer called cementum protects the tooth root under the gum line. Underneath the enamel and the cementum is dentin, a part of the tooth that is less dense than enamel or cementum.

The dentin contains microscopic tubules (small hollow tubes or canals). When the dentin loses its protective covering, the tubules allow heat and cold or acidic or sticky foods to stimulate the nerves and cells inside the tooth. This causes hypersensitivity and occasional discomfort. Fortunately, the irritation does not cause permanent damage to the pulp. Dentin may be exposed when gums recede.

Dentists say brushing too hard; frequent use of bleaching agents (including peroxide and baking soda), mouthwash, and highly acidic foods can deteriorate tooth enamel. Poor oral hygiene can lead to gum disease and erosion. 

Tooth sensitivity can be long-lasting or temporary, such as immediately after you have a dental procedure (cleaning, bleaching, filling, crown placement, or root planing). In rare cases, dentists need to prescribe pain medication until sensitivity goes away.

Can chronic (long-term) tooth sensitivity be treated?  Yes, there are many ways to treat tooth sensitivity.

  • Desensitizing toothpastes can be purchased over-the-counter or with a dentist's prescription. Make sure the one you choose has the American Dental Association's Seal of Approval for safety and effectiveness. These toothpastes contain compounds that help block transmission of sensation from the tooth surface to the nerve. You might need to use it several times before it starts to work.
  • Fluoride gel (applied in the dentist's office) strengthens tooth enamel to reduce sensitivity.
  • Dental sealants are a type of bonding agent made out of plastic material. Your dentist can apply them to the root of the sensitive tooth. 
  • Root canal may be needed if tooth sensitivity is severe, persistent, and doesn't respond to other treatment options. 

The best way to deal with tooth sensitivity is prevention. Use a soft toothbrush, brush with low-abrasive toothpaste, floss daily, and have regular dental checkups. Go easy on high-sugar, high-acid foods, and tooth-whitening products. Get any chips, cracks, or other tooth or gum problems addressed immediately.




American Dental Association