Photo of Dr. Lincoln Hirst BDSWritten by the Dental Fear Central Web Team and medically reviewed by Lincoln Hirst, BDS
Last updated on June 30, 2020

What causes sensitive teeth?

Sensitive teeth are often caused by exposed dentine – the inner substance of the tooth, which is normally covered by enamel. This can result in a short sharp pain to cold drinks, food, air, hot, sweet, sour, and touch (especially when brushing).

An illustration showing exposed dentinal tubules

Dentine contains little tunnels (dentinal tubules) that link to the nerves on the inside of the tooth. When dentine is exposed, these nerves are stimulated, resulting in pain.

How do you stop sensitive teeth pain?

1. Use a toothpaste for sensitive teeth!

There are many toothpastes to help with sensitive teeth. But they don’t all contain the same active ingredients. So if one toothpaste for sensitive teeth doesn’t work for you, try another.

Below, we’ve listed the active ingredients in approximate order of effectiveness 1 2 3:

1. Stannous fluoride

Stannous fluoride works by forming a barrier on the dentine surface, which acts like a protective shield. Examples (in the UK and Ireland) include Oral-B Pro-Expert Professional Protection and Sensodyne Rapid Relief toothpaste. There is good evidence that stannous fluoride works well as a desensitising agent.

2. Arginine / Pro-Argin

Arginine (e.g. Colgate Sensitive Pro-Relief toothpaste) can also help with sensitive teeth, although the evidence is not quite as good as it is for stannous fluoride.

3. Calcium sodium phosphosilicate (aka NOVAMIN)

Again, there’s moderate evidence that this works. It is sold as Sensodyne Repair & Protect with Novamin in the UK.

4. Potassium Nitrate

This is the most commonly used desensitising agent in toothpastes, even though there’s no clear evidence that it works.

How to use toothpaste for sensitive teeth

  • Use instead of your normal toothpaste.
  • Make sure that you work the paste right into the bristles of the brush. Brush twice a day. When finished, spit out and don’t rinse!
  • For quick relief, rub it onto the affected areas with your finger for one minute.
  • Many of these toothpastes need to be used for 3-4 weeks to have a significant effect. So don’t give up if it doesn’t work straight away.
  • Desensitising toothpastes can be used indefinitely. The warning on some packaging not to use it for more than a month is a legal requirement, so you don’t put off seeing a dentist when there may be a more serious problem. There are no health reasons for not using them long-term.

2. Other ways you can reduce your sensitivity

Toothpastes for sensitive teeth deal with the effects of exposed dentine. But you may also want to tackle the causes. Here are some top tips:

  1. Don’t brush too often or too hard.
  2. Use an electric toothbrush which has a pressure sensor and timer.
  3. Use the technique recommended by the toothbrush manufacturer.
  4. Don’t scrub in the same way you would with a manual toothbrush.
  5. Avoid frequent acid exposure. Acidic drinks and foods can open up the little tunnels (tubules) which may have partially closed.
  6. If you grind or clench, wear a nightguard.

3. What can dentists do about sensitive teeth?

  • Your dentist or hygienist may be able to paint special fluoride gels, rinses or varnishes onto the affected teeth.
  • Seal & Protect is a light cured resin material that “seals” off the dentinal tubules from the external environment. It can reduce sensitivity for up to twelve months. However, it’s fairly expensive and your dentist will need to reapply it once it has worn off.
  • If you grind your teeth in your sleep, ask your dentist about a mouthguard that you can wear at night.

References

Illustration of exposed dentinal tubules: reprinted from Journal of Oral Biosciences Volume 59, Issue 4, Ji won Kim and Joo-Cheol Park, “Dentin hypersensitivity and emerging concepts for treatments”, Pages 211-217, November 2017, with permission from Elsevier.

  1. West NX, Seong J, Davies M. Management of dentine hypersensitivity: efficacy of professionally and self‐administered agents. Journal of Clinical Periodontology, Vol. 42, Issue S16.[]
  2. Poulsen S, Errboe M, Lescay Mevil Y, and Glenny A-M. Potassium containing toothpastes for dentine hypersensitivity. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2006, Issue 3. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001476.pub2.[]
  3. Karim BFA, Gillam DG. The efficacy of strontium and potassium toothpastes in treating dentine hypersensitivity: a systematic review. Int J Dent. 2013; 2013: 573258. DOI: 10.1155/2013/573258[]