Tooth sensitivity is a very common dental complaint. It can occur at any age, even in people with apparently healthy teeth. The symptoms of tooth sensitivity are tingling, zinging, sharp, stabbing or shooting pains in one or more teeth. The pain is usually brief and subsides rapidly each time it is triggered. This distinguishes general sensitivity from toothache, which is often constant and throbbing. However, untreated tooth sensitivity may well turn into a full-blown toothache if it isn’t addressed.

What Makes Teeth Sensitive?

A tooth is made up of several layers of tissue. The pulp, which contains blood vessels and nerves, is at the center. Below the gums, the outer layer is made up of a calcium-rich tissue called cementum that attaches to the periodontal ligament. It is usually covered by the bony socket in the jaw and by the gums. The portion of tooth that shows above the gum line has an inner layer of dentin and an outer layer of hard enamel. Dentin and cementum are somewhat porous. If these materials are exposed, they don’t protect the nerve inside the tooth very well. Dentin is usually exposed when enamel is eroded (chemically eaten away by acids in the mouth) or abraded (mechanically worn down by biting or chewing forces). Cementum is usually exposed when the gums recede, causing the sensitive feeling.

What Triggers Tooth Sensitivity?

Cold, heat, sweet foods, acidic foods and pressure can all send pain zinging through sensitive teeth. What you eat and drink usually has the biggest day-to-day impact on your dental nerves. However, patients who live in cool climates or go out in cold weather can suffer a stab of pain every time they breathe cold air into their mouths.

Who Is at Risk for Tooth Sensitivity?

The risk factors for developing this condition include:

  • A family history of weak enamel
  • Cavities (tooth sensitivity may be an early warning sign)
  • Plaque buildup along the gum line
  • Gum disease (especially if gums have started to recede)
  • Aggressive brushing
  • High intake of sugary and acidic foods and beverages
  • Use of tooth whitening products
  • Bruxism (tooth grinding or jaw clenching)
  • Gastric reflux
  • Bulimia
  • Recent dental work

Can Tooth Sensitivity Be Treated?

Yes. In many cases, the symptoms can be reduced. Some patients experience complete relief while others just have fewer episodes of sensitivity or less painful sensations. At-home remedies include the use of desensitizing toothpastes that help block the tiny pores in the dentin to protect the nerve. Mouthwash that contains fluoride (but not alcohol) may also prove helpful. In most cases, ongoing use of at-home desensitizing agents over many weeks is needed to relieve discomfort.

A dentist may be able to provide faster relief for sensitivity with in-office fluoride gel or varnish treatments. These procedures may strengthen enamel that has been weakened by acid. They also help kill oral bacteria that erode the tooth surface. Exposed dentin or cementum may also be physically covered up with a dental bonding agent that matches the color of the tooth.

5 Tips for Reducing Recurrence of Tooth Sensitivity

  1. Brush your teeth and gum line with a soft-bristled tooth and a non-abrasive toothpaste twice a day.
  2. Floss or use a waterpik or dental pick at least once per day.
  3. Reduce your intake of sugary and acidic foods or beverages.
  4. Chew sugar-free gum after each meal to help clean your mouth, neutralize acids from oral bacteria and keep enamel strong.
  5. Visit your dentist regularly to have your teeth cleaned of plaque to reduce the risk of gum disease and cavities.