Nothing steals joy from the pure bliss of an ice cream cone on a hot day like sensitive teeth. If you’re having sensitivity, your teeth may be reacting to hot, cold, or sweet foods and drinks. There are many reasons why you might suddenly have sensitive teeth, and the good news is usually there’s a solution.
In case you haven’t read some of our other posts describing tooth structure, here is a brief run-down of the structure of the tooth. Each tooth has three parts- the hard “shield” on the outside, the enamel, the semi-soft dentin which makes the shape, and the pulp which has nerves and blood vessels. Your dentin is full of tubules that connect the inner root to the enamel and help you sense temperature and pressure changes. However, these tubules are supposed to be “capped” by the enamel, so they can sense temperature, but it’s not too intense.
Tooth sensitivity happens when the enamel is thin or missing from the top of the tubules. Sensations picked up by the tubules are now “shouts,” which your nerves interpret as pain. This can happen when enamel is worn down or when gums recede. Sometimes, you can also get sensitive teeth when you’re grinding at night, causing irritation in the nerves of your teeth.
Here is a picture of exposed dentin tubules from Free Patents Online.
Causes of Sensitive Teeth
Acidic foods and beverages or stomach acid
The harsh acids in food or stomach acid cause enamel erosion. If you struggle with GERD, reflux, or bulimia you are more susceptible to sensitive teeth.
Brushing too hard or with a hard bristle brush
This causes enamel erosion and receding gums. When you brush, you should view it as a firm but gentle massage of your gums. Always use a soft bristled brush unless specifically told otherwise by a dental professional.
Forgetting to floss and care for your gums appropriately
Unhealthy gums recede because of a build-up of hostile bacteria. Flossing and brushing regularly helps keep bacteria growth down and helps gums stay healthy.
Cracked fillings or tooth decay
This exposes the dentin of your teeth by eating away your enamel, or when a filling becomes cracked or broken and no longer covers your dentin appropriately.
Recent dental treatment
This kind of sensitivity is normal and temporary. After a few days your sensitivity should go away. It is caused by irritation in the root of your tooth from the forces of dental work.
Grinding your Teeth
Grinding your teeth at night can cause tooth sensitivity in two ways. One is irritation in the root from the aggressive collision of teeth against each other. The second way is by wearing down the enamel where teeth are rubbing against each other. Grinding can be caused by sleep problems, mouth structure, or stress, but needs to be treated to prevent other issues.
If you suspect you have a cracked or damaged filling or new decay you should see your dentist ASAP. The sooner you care for those issues, the better for your long-term dental health. If you leave cavities untreated, they will eat through more and more of your tooth and filling it will mean more natural tooth loss.
If you think your sensitive teeth may be a result of exposed dentin, you can try to treat it at home by improving your oral care routine, brushing gently, and switching to a special toothpaste for sensitive teeth. Those toothpastes are formulated to help remineralize your teeth and build up your enamel. If sensitivity persists, you can discuss options with your dentist for restoring enamel. That usually involves a simple but powerful fluoride application in-office.
If your teeth become sensitive after dental treatment and don’t settle down in a week or so, give your dentist a call and discuss it with them. They know your mouth best and why that particular treatment may have caused a flare up of sensitive teeth.
If you have sensitive teeth and you don’t think any of these issues have caused it, it is likely caused by grinding your teeth at night. Many people who grind their teeth are unaware. Grinding is bad for your enamel and wears it down, but also irritates the root with the force of collision with other teeth. Talk with your dentist about how to eliminate teeth grinding.