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Sensitive Teeth: The Root of the Problem

Do you cringe from discomfort or pain when you drink a hot beverage or bite into a popsicle? If so, you may be suffering from sensitive teeth.

Tooth sensitivity is a fairly common problem triggered by hot or cold foods and drinks, or even by breathing cold air.

Causes of Sensitive Teeth

Exposed dentin is usually to blame. Dentin is the tissue that makes up the core of each tooth. On the crown of the tooth the dentin is covered by a protective coating of enamel. When this enamel wears away or decays, the dentin becomes exposed and vulnerable to sensations, including pain.

Periodontal (gum) disease — an infection of the gums and bone that support the teeth — also may be responsible. If gum disease isn’t treated, gum tissues can separate from the teeth and form spaces called pockets that provide a home for bacteria. Gum disease can progress until the bone and other tooth-supporting tissues are damaged, leaving the root surfaces of teeth exposed. The root surface is covered by a thin layer of a bone-like material called cementum. When the thin cementum is lost, the underlying dentin is exposed.

What You Can Do

Proper oral hygiene is essential in preventing tooth decay, gum disease, and pain from sensitive teeth. If you brush your teeth incorrectly or too aggressively, you may injure your gums and expose tooth roots. Brushing with too much pressure can wear the thin coating of cementum off the root surface leaving sensitive dentin exposed. Also, avoid consuming highly acidic foods and beverages, which can wear away enamel and cementum over time.

Ease up on whitening toothpastes and bleaching treatments, as they may increase tooth sensitivity as well. Regular dental checkups are important, so that any problems may be detected and treated in the early stages.

How Your Dentist Can Help

Your dentist will examine your teeth, look for causes of sensitivity, and make treatment recommendations. A dentist can measure the severity of your sensitive teeth by spraying air across each area of your teeth to determine the exact location of sensitivity.

If the sensitivity is caused by clenching or grinding, your dentist may recommend a mouth guard.

Products for home use include desensitizing toothpastes and mouth rinses. In-office procedures include application of desensitizing agents or protective sealants.

If gum tissue has been lost from the root (gum recession), your dentist may recommend a surgical gum graft to cover the root, protect the tooth, and reduce the sensitivity. In cases in which hypersensitivity is severe and persistent and cannot be treated by other means, your dentist may recommend a filling to eliminate the problem.

“Why Are My Teeth Sensitive?” Know Your Teeth, Academy of General Dentistry. Accessed 2013.

“For the Dental Patient. Sensitive teeth: Causes and treatment.” Journal of the American Dental Association. December 2003, vol. 134, p 1691. Accessed 2013.

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