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Tooth Sensitivity: Causes, Solutions and When to See a Dentist

According to the Academy of General Dentistry, roughly 45 million Americans experience tooth sensitivity, a condition characterized by a tingly feeling or a flash pinch of pain affecting all teeth, certain areas of certain teeth or all of one or more teeth.

The pain associated with tooth sensitivity may occur constantly or intermittently. Intermittent tooth sensitivity can occur while ingesting hot or cold food or beverages, or when cold air hits the teeth. In some cases, tooth sensitivity pain is mistaken for root damage.

The Cause and Effect of Tooth Sensitivity

What exactly causes tooth sensitivity? Aging accounts for some tooth sensitivity. As we age, enamel (the outer tooth surface) naturally wears down, exposing the dentin (the initial inner tooth surface) and causing sensitivity. But tooth sensitivity also results from a variety of other factors, including:

  • Gum recession.
  • Acidy liquids (such as soda) that cause enamel wear and dentin exposure.
  • Tooth grinding, in which case all teeth feel sensitive.
  • Brushing teeth too hard, which may cause enamel loss and dentin exposure.
  • Dental treatment such as teeth whitening, professional dental hygiene cleanings, orthodontics or tooth restorations (i.e., root canals).
  • Root nerve damage, gum disease (periodontitis), or a chipped or fractured tooth.

The Dental Visit

In the end, it is best to see a dentist about sensitive teeth to determine the true nature of the sensitivity. During the consultation, your dentist uses an instrument called a spray gun to dispense air across every area of each tooth in order to locate the sensitivity.

Once it is determined that the cause does not require dental restorative treatment, your dentist may apply an in-office desensitizer, which acts as protective coating designed to thwart any hypersensitivity. The product, which has a sticky foundation, is applied by your dentist while you are in the office. In-office desensitizers may also be used to reduce discomfort during dental treatments. Your dentist may recommend additional remedies to further manage tooth sensitivity.

Tooth Sensitivity Solutions

You have many options for the management of tooth sensitivity. For low-level sensitivity, a home maintenance program can be effective. Over-the-counter fluoride rinses, gels and toothpastes can make the root nerve less sensitive or build a protective coating to cover the sensitive tooth surface. For higher levels of sensitivity, an in-office desensitizer may provide relief for many months, even years.

Sometimes, dentists recommend an over-the-counter desensitizer to supplement treatment. A soft-bristled toothbrush may also provide relief.

Again, whether you ultimately choose an in-office desensitizer or over-the-counter toothpastes, rinses or gels, the most important step is to see a dentist first to determine which tooth sensitivity solution is right for you.