We don’t often think of our teeth as being sensitive. After all, they’re tough enough to make mush out of our favourite crunchy foods. And, with our teeth’s enamel registering a score of 5 on the Mohs hardness scale, they even have a protective coating that’s tougher than steel! Still, somehow, a hot cup of tea or a single spoonful of ice cream can send a painful sensation rocketing through our teeth and shivers all through our bodies. In the winter months, even exposure to a blast of frigid air seems to sometimes be enough to make our teeth feel like they’re about to shatter.
Tough as our teeth might seem, they’re actually quite sensitive. That’s because, underneath that tough enamel exterior, they’re just big softies… literally. The inside of our teeth consists of pulp that is full of nerves and blood vessels. If exposed, those inner layers of dentin and pulp become, well, raw as a nerve and make our teeth react strongly to any exterior stimuli.
Few dental and oral health issues can be quite as annoying—or painful—as sensitive teeth. The pain can be reminiscent of a persistent toothache—or even cause one—or it can be sharp, shooting, and sudden. Sometimes, once you remove the exterior stimulus that caused your tooth to react, the pain subsides as if it had never been there. Other times, the pain persists and maybe even travels to other parts of your face or body.
Either way, regardless of the type of pain, your sensitive teeth are trying to tell you that something isn’t right. Understanding what causes sensitive teeth can help you improve your overall dental and oral health.
What Causes Sensitive Teeth
We already established that tooth enamel is tough stuff but that’s only because it has a lot of sensitive stuff that it has to protect. Beneath our teeth’s enamel coating lies a layer of dentin and, beneath the gum, cementum. While both dentin and cementum are tougher than the pulp beneath them, they aren’t nearly as tough as enamel nor are they well-suited to guard against the external environment. Damage to our teeth’s enamel can expose dentin while receding gums can expose cementum.
Once exposed, dentin and cementum will respond to hot and cold foods and beverages as well as, potentially, highly acidic food and drink items such as lemons or soda. Depending on the severity of the exposure, the sensitivity can range from a tingling sensation to searing pain.
There are many potential causes for receding gums and damaged enamel, but the most common ones are also, fortunately, the easiest to correct.
Brushing Too Hard or Using a Hard Toothbrush
There’s a reason dentists encourage their patients to “brush” their teeth and not “scrub them mercilessly with an emery board soaked in lye”. Brushing our teeth too vigorously or with a toothbrush that is too hard can lead to tooth sensitivity by eroding our gums.
Medical health professionals always advise applying gentle pressure while brushing your teeth. If you’re not certain how much pressure is too much, many electric toothbrushes today come equipped with sensors that will let you know how much pressure is enough.
Grinding Teeth or Bruxism
Grinding your teeth or tightly clenching your jaw while you sleep—a condition dentists refer to as bruxism—can also lead to tooth sensitivity. The act of grinding your teeth or applying consistent and excessive pressure to them can damage the enamel and expose your underlying layer of dentin.
Medical health professionals attribute bruxism and teeth grinding to stress but it could also be the result of misaligned teeth. It’s best to consult your dentist who may prescribe a customized mouthguard.
Various types of gums disease and infection can cause our gums to become swollen and inflamed. The gum irritation causes them to pull away from the tooth, thus exposing the sensitive layer of cementum underneath. Swollen, bleeding, inflamed, or otherwise irritated gums are worth a trip to the dentist who can then make a diagnosis and prescribe treatment as required.
Dental Treatments and Cleaning Agents
Many of the products that we use to clean our teeth contain at least some amount of abrasive and/or corrosive cleaning agents. Products that contain baking soda and hydrogen peroxide are generally safe to use but are also particularly prone to causing temporary tooth sensitivity. Even some over-the-counter mouthwashes can irritate exposed dentin or cementum and cause pain in our teeth.
It’s also not uncommon for dentists and hygienists to use products during regular checkups or during teeth whitening treatments that cause tooth sensitivity. Your dentist or hygienist will warn you in advance of the treatment and after it to avoid eating and drinking for a specified amount of time. If your sensitivity persists past that allotted time, you should contact your dentist.
While these are the most common causes of sensitive teeth, they’re not the only ones. In order to keep flashing our best smiles—and to stop cringing in pain—there’s a lot we can do to protect our teeth. If you’re experiencing tooth sensitivity or if any of the common causes of tooth sensitivity apply to you, contact Grundy Family Dental Care today. All your sensitive teeth need is a little tender love and care from our skilled dentists and hygienists.