Many people experience sensitive teeth, and not everyone has the same symptoms. You can have one sensitive tooth, or a mouth where every single tooth feels sensitive. You can have sensitivity to cold and/or hot temperatures and sweet and/or sour flavors. However you experience it, it is no fun!
Teeth are not supposed to be sensitive, and if they are, it is a symptom you should share with your dentist. She will discuss your specific issues and try to isolate the cause of your sensitivity so that you can remedy the situation.
What Causes Tooth Sensitivity?
There are three main causes of tooth sensitivity. In order to understand these, let's cover a little dental anatomy first. Teeth are hollow, and the hollow space inside teeth contains a nerve that sens signals to your brain telling you when something is not quite right. The part of the tooth you can see is called the crown. The crown is covered in enamel, which is the hardest substance in the body, even harder than bone. Enamel is made to be a solid coating over the crown of the tooth, protecting it from the sensations we expose our teeth to when we eat and drink. The part of the tooth you cannot see because it is hidden in the jawbone and gums is the root. The root of the tooth is not covered in enamel because it is meant to be encased in bone and gums.
1. The first possible cause of tooth sensitivity is when there is a problem with the enamel coating of the tooth. This includes cavities and cracks which disrupt the solidarity of the enamel and provide an opening for those sensations to reach the nerve inside the tooth.
2. The second most common cause of tooth sensitivity is exposure of the root caused by gum recession. When gums and bone recede, it exposes the root to the mouth and all the subsequent sensations associated with eating and drinking. Because the root does not have enamel, it does not have the same protection as the crown of the tooth. This means the nerve inside the tooth can feel temperatures and flavors more than it is supposed to. (Gum recession does not always cause tooth sensitivity. Dr. Jason, Dr. Alex and Dr. Serena will evaluate the area where you feel sensitivity to determine if this is the cause.)
3. The third most common cause of tooth sensitivity that we see in our office is bruxism (clenching or grinding your teeth). This can cause individual tooth sensitivity or an entire mouth full of sensitive teeth. The cause of bruxism-related tooth sensitivity is hypersensitivity of the nerve inside the tooth because it is being subjected to abnormally-strong biting forces.
These causes can become interrelated because bruxism often leads to tooth cracks and gum recession. But let's say cavities, cracks and gum recession have all been ruled out, and your teeth are still sensitive. Now it's time to evaluate your whole mouth for signs of bruxism. The hypersensitivity of the nerve caused by the heavy forces of bruxism can affect different teeth at different times or all the teeth at once and often is inconsistent.
What Can I Do About Tooth Sensitivity?
The very first thing to do is have a dental evaluation to rule out cavities and cracks. Either of those conditions will require dental treatment to fix the problem. Once the cause of the sensitivity is treated, it should subside. It's not always an immediate cure; it can take a few weeks after treatment for the nerve to settle back to normal. If you experience sensitivity more than a few weeks after treatment, you should have the tooth evaluated again.
If cavities or cracks are ruled out, then the cause of tooth sensitivity is likely a gum recession problem. There are many ways to treat hypersensitivity from gum recession including (but not limited to) fluoride treatments, over-the-counter sensitivity toothpastes and strips, fillings to cover the exposed root surface, or gum grafting to return the gums to their proper position.
If bruxism is determined to be the cause of your sensitivity, the simplest way to treat it is by wearing a mouthpiece (night guard) while you sleep that keeps the teeth separated and reduces the biting forces put on the teeth.
Tooth sensitivity can be treated relatively easily. The most important factor in treating it is accurately diagnosing the cause, which is your dentist's job.
Need more information?
Call our office at 605-925-4999 (Freeman) or (605) 928-3363 (Parkston) to set up an evaluation with Dr. Jason Aanenson, Dr. Alex Whitesell or Dr. Serena Whitesell!