Do your teeth zing you with hot, cold or sweets?
There’s nothing worse than a surprising jolt of pain when you’re trying to sip hot coffee, enjoy ice cream bar or chew caramels. The shock of pain quickly spoils the moment. When teeth become sensitive to temperature or sweets, it’s our body’s way of telling us that something is wrong.
What are sensitive teeth trying to tell us?
Sensitivity is a tooth yelling that it feels stressed or weak. We feel pain from hot, cold or sweet because our nerve has gotten overly sensitive.
In healthy teeth, nerves are insulated from temperature and sweets by a strong, protective layer of enamel. If enamel is weak or damaged, the nerve is much more exposed to changes in the mouth. Thank goodness our nerves are so sensitive though because they let us know that our tooth has an issue.
What conditions cause sensitivity?
Teeth become sensitive due to enamel erosion, cavities, nerve infections, recession or clenching and grinding.
Enamel erosion can be caused by acidic foods and beverages, by acid reflux and vomiting, and by the acid produced from sugar by the same bacteria that cause cavities. Sensitivity from enamel erosion can sometimes be reversed with topical fluoride varnishes that seal the enamel and stop the sensitivity. Using a toothpaste for sensitive teeth also helps. If the enamel erodes too much, then a sealant or filling may be necessary to reinforce the remaining enamel and prevent a cavity from developing.
Cavities form when enamel erosion is untreated and bacteria infect the weakened area. Cavities progress much more quickly in people with diets high in sugar and simple types of carbohydrates. Cavities also damage a tooth more rapidly when the sugar and carbs are allowed to stay in the mouth or on the teeth longer. This can happen if people don’t brush frequently or thoroughly enough, and it can also happen if people sip or chew on sugary things throughout the day. Caught at the beginning, cavities can be repaired with simple fillings. Allowed to develop, they can destroy the outer and inner structure of a tooth to the point of infecting the nerve. Larger cavities require crowns to replace lost tooth structure and infected nerves need to be treated to prevent complicated bone infections.
Infected Nerves cause specific patterns of hot and cold sensitivity that tell a dentist if the nerve has just begun to feel the infection or if it is dying. Root canal treatment, which involves cleaning out the infected tissue in the roots of the teeth, used to be the only solution dentists could offer for infected teeth besides extraction. While root canals are still appropriate and effective for some teeth, dental implants have become a second option for infected, broken down teeth that give the option for a new tooth that is never going to get another cavity or need another root canal. For many patients, a dental implant is the better long term choice for teeth with huge cavities and infected nerves.
Recession happens when the gum tissue around a tooth recedes up the tooth leaving dentin or tooth root exposed. These exposed areas are sensitive. Dentin and tooth roots are supposed to be covered and insulated by enamel or gum tissue. When they are exposed to air or sweets, they protest with a zing of pain. As we discussed in more detail on our page on recession, recession is caused by brushing too hard, by gum disease or by clenching and grinding. Sensitivity in areas with recession can be reduced by applying fluoride varnish to temporarily seal the exposed dentin or root surface. Depending on what caused the recession, a combination of new toothbrushing techniques, gum therapy or bite therapy can be necessary to stop the recession from getting worse and treat the sensitivity.
Can’t I Do Anything at Home to Help with Sensitivity?
Absolutely! Treating sensitivity always involves the following “home remedies.”
- Use a toothpaste for sensitive teeth.
- Get an ultrasonic toothbrush: If you can’t resist pressing and scrubbing when you brush, trade in your manual brush for a Sonicare or Oral-B ultrasonic toothbrush. These brushes clean teeth with rapidly vibrating and rotating bristles. Many models even alert you when you’re pressing too hard!
- Limit sugary and acidic foods & beverages to limit the progression of enamel erosion and cavities.
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