What causes sensitive teeth?
Sensitive teeth are often caused by worn tooth enamel or exposed tooth roots. 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.
Things which can cause sensitive teeth include:
- toothbrush and/or toothpaste damage: by brushing too hard and/or using abrasive toothpaste, you may be removing tooth structure at the necks of your teeth,
- 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. Make sure you don’t brush half an hour after eating, or after drinking anything acidic.
Toothpastes for sensitive teeth
Desensitising agents work by blocking off the dentinal tubules, so that the nerves don’t get stimulated.
In our opinion (and after extensive product testing), the most effective toothpastes contain a combination of arginine and calcium carbonate. This is also known as Pro-Argin technology. Colgate Sensitive Pro-Relief with Pro-Argin is one such toothpaste. They claim that it provides “instant relief when applied directly to the sensitive tooth with the fingertip and gently massaged for 1 minute.” When using it as a toothpaste, make sure that you work the paste right into the bristles of the brush so that it doesn’t all fall off in a big lump when you first put it into your mouth.
“Try this, get hold of some Colgate Sensitive toothpaste, can’t remember the exact name, Pro-Relief I think.
Last thing at night before you go to bed, brush your teeth as usual. Then get a small smear of the Colgate on your fingers and massage it in to the neck of the sore areas. Don’t rinse, don’t eat or drink anything else, go to bed!
The theory is that your saliva production switches off a bit during the night (otherwise you’d wake with a wet pillow!) and the paste will have a good few uninterrupted hours to work.” (Gordon Laurie, BDS)
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 health reasons for not using desensitising agents long-term.
You may want to try a non-alcohol mouthwash with a high fluoride content. There are mouthwashes specifically designed to reduce sensitivity, for example those containing the Pro-Argin technology mentioned above (such as Colgate Sensitive Pro-Relief Mouthwash).
Swish the mouthwash back and forth between the teeth for at least 30 seconds, spit out, and do not rinse with water afterwards.
The concentration of fluoride tends to be higher in toothpastes, so you may want to use desensitising mouthwashes at other times of the day, rather than after brushing your teeth.
What can dentists do about sensitive teeth?
- Depending on the cause of the sensitivity, your dentist or hygienist may be able to paint special fluoride gels, rinses or varnishes onto the affected teeth.
- 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 all other options first though.
- If you grind your teeth in your sleep, ask your dentist about having a mouthguard made to wear at night.