What causes sensitive teeth?
Toothbrush and/or toothpaste damage may be the most frequent cause of sensitive teeth. By brushing too hard and/or using abrasive toothpaste, you may be removing tooth structure at the necks of your teeth.
This can result in pain, especially to cold drinks, food, and air, but also to physical pressure, hot, sweet and sour.
The reason for the pain is exposed dentine – the inner substance of the tooth, which is covered by enamel. The enamel can get quite thin, especially where the tooth meets the root (at the gumline). The root is covered by a substance called cementum, which is easily worn away. Dentine contains little tunnels (tubules) that link to the nerves on the inside of the tooth, and when dentine is exposed, these nerves are easily stimulated, resulting in pain.
Other things which can cause sensitive teeth include:
- acid erosion,
- gum recession,
- gum disease,
- tooth grinding,
- tooth bleaching, and
- a cracked tooth or filling.
What can I do about sensitive teeth?
To prevent further damage, brush your teeth gently as described on our toothbrush abrasion page and avoid abrasive toothpaste or use a non-alcohol mouthwash to wet your toothbrush instead.
Toothpastes for sensitive teeth
Desensitizing agents such as Sensodyne (there’s loads of different ones on the market now) work by blocking off the dentinal tubules, so that the nerves don’t get stimulated.
Sensodyne & Co. don’t work that well used as a toothpaste. They work a lot better by gently massaging the paste or gel into the sore spot with a finger. Do not rinse it off with water or mouthwash. It may take several weeks before the desired effect is achieved.
Desensitising toothpastes can be used indefinitely. The warning on the US packet not to use Sensodyne for more than a month is a legal requirement, designed so that people won’t put off seeing a dentist when something might be seriously wrong. There are no actual health reasons for not using desensitising agents long-term.
Not everyone finds that sensitive toothpastes work. You may want to try a non-alcohol mouthwash with a high fluoride content instead. Some of them are specifically designed to reduce sensitivity. They should be used twice a day after brushing – one of those times should be just before you go to bed, so the mouthwash doesn’t get rinsed away when you drink or eat something.
Swish the mouthwash back and forth between the teeth for at least 30 seconds, and do not rinse with water afterwards.
What can dentists do about sensitive teeth?
- Depending on the cause of the sensitivity, your dentist may be able to paint special fluoride gels, rinses or varnishes onto the affected teeth (although from personal experience, these can be hard to come by in some parts of the UK…).
- If this doesn’t help and you can’t put up with the sensitivity, your dentist can seal or put bonding around the neck of the tooth, to cover exposed dentine. You should try the other options first though.
- If you grind your teeth, ask your dentist about the possibility of having a mouthguard made to wear at night.