Do you feel pain or discomfort when you have hot or cold food and drink or when you brush and floss your teeth? Some people naturally have more sensitive teeth, but if eating, drinking and daily oral care are causing you pain, this is usually a sign that something's wrong.
A dentist can tell you what's causing your tooth sensitivity and recommend treatments or lifestyle changes to reduce its effects, so you can hopefully go back to enjoying your favourite foods and drinks without the discomfort.
Why do my teeth feel sensitive?
Tooth sensitivity (also called dentin hypersensitivity) can happen suddenly or gradually. It may be mild or chronic and may only affect one tooth, several teeth or all of the teeth in your mouth.
Sensitive teeth may be triggered by stimuli such as:
- eating or drinking something hot, cold, sweet or acidic
- breathing cold air
- brushing or flossing your teeth
- using a mouthwash
All teeth are sensitive to a degree, but the hard external layer (enamel) normally reduces sensitivity so we can enjoy food and drink in a range of temperatures.
If some of this enamel wears away, or a tooth is damaged, the more sensitive inner layer of the tooth (dentine) will be exposed. If damage or erosion reaches all the way to the interior of the tooth (the root canal and pulp), this can cause chronic tooth pain and sensitivity.
What causes tooth sensitivity?
There can be many reasons why teeth start to feel more sensitive. Some people naturally have more sensitive teeth, but sensitivity is more commonly the result of:
- tooth decay caused by bacteria in plaque
- tooth erosion from acidic food and drink, vomiting or reflux
- chips and cracks in teeth
- gum disease or receding gums exposing tooth roots
- brushing your teeth too hard or using a hard bristle toothbrush
- teeth grinding or clenching (bruxism)
- damaged fillings, crowns or other dental work
- sensitivity following a dental treatment (usually temporary)
- side-effect of cosmetic treatments such as dental veneers or teeth whitening
Your dentist will aim to find out the cause of your tooth sensitivity so they can recommend effective treatments.
How do dentists fix sensitive teeth?
When you make an appointment with a dentist to discuss tooth sensitivity, they'll ask about your symptoms and arrange an examination of your teeth and gums. This will usually involve x-rays, as the cause of sensitivity is often undetectable to the naked eye.
Their treatment recommendations will depend on what's causing your teeth to feel sensitive, how severe it is and how many teeth are affected. Treatment options may include:
- changing your daily oral care routine
- visiting your dentist for a hygiene appointment
- placing a dental crown, filling or other restoration
- root canal therapy to treat an infected tooth
- gum disease treatment or a surgical gum graft
- bruxism treatment to reduce teeth grinding
Find out more about each of these treatment options below.
If tooth sensitivity isn't caused by a cavity or another health problem, it can often be treated by making some changes to your oral care routine.
Your dentist may recommend switching to a toothbrush with soft bristles or a special desensitising toothpaste. They may also demonstrate gentler brushing and flossing techniques that are lighter on your teeth and gums. If you use mouthwash, avoid alcohol-based products, as these can cause irritation.
If plaque has built up on your teeth, professional cleaning and scaling will remove this build-up and lower your risk of gum irritation. Your dentist may also recommend applying fluoride to help strengthen your teeth and offer protection against further plaque attacks.
Dental crown or filling
If a tooth has been damaged or has lost too much enamel, placing a dental restoration could help to restore its strength, protect against bacteria and reduce sensitivity.
Minor cracks may be sealed with bonding, while a filling or crown can rebuild a tooth's structure, depending on how much of the natural tooth remains. Composite fillings and ceramic crowns can be matched to the tooth's natural colour for a seamless finish.
Root canal therapy
The centre of teeth contains nerve endings and blood vessels, so if this gets infected, it can be very painful and make eating and drinking uncomfortable. Infected teeth can usually be saved with a root canal procedure.
This involves drilling into the tooth, removing the infected tissue, replacing it with a synthetic material and sealing the tooth with a crown or filling. Root canal treatments use local anaesthesia to minimise pain and discomfort.
If your gums have receded due to gum disease or excessive brushing, your dentist could discuss the option of a gum graft. This is a surgical procedure that involves removing some tissue from the palate of your mouth and transplanting it to your gum to cover the sensitive roots of teeth.
If you grind or clench your teeth at night or when you feel stressed or anxious, you can discuss solutions with your dentist or doctor. Dentists can provide a night splint similar to a mouth guard that's fitted over the teeth to reduce the impact of grinding. You could also try modifying your sleep habits or trying to reduce stress and anxiety.
How to avoid tooth sensitivity
Sensitive teeth can't always be avoided, but you can lower your risk of tooth pain and discomfort by following your dentist's advice and taking good care of your oral health every day. This includes:
- careful brushing and flossing using a soft toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste
- cutting down on sugar and acidic food and drinks
- getting plenty of calcium in your diet to help rebuild teeth
- wearing a sports mouthguard to help prevent injuries
- keeping up with your scheduled dental visits
Do you need a Brisbane dentist?
If you want to know why your teeth feel sensitive and to discuss treatments with a dentist near you, call (07) 3221 0677 to make an appointment at your local Face Value Dental clinic. We have clinics in Brisbane CBD, Toowong, Albany Creek and Helensvale.
American Dental Association. Sensitive Teeth [Online] 2012 [Accessed June 2020] Available from: https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/s/sensitive-teeth
Healthdirect. Root canal treatment [Online] 2019 [Accessed June 2020] Available from: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/root-canal-treatment