5 Common Reasons for Tooth Sensitivity 

Have you ever experienced a quick sharp pain, a “zing” through your tooth like lightning?  Was this sensation brought on by stimuli of something hot or cold in temperature, sweet, sour or by touch?  Tooth sensitivity is very common and there are many potential reasons behind the sensitivity.

Before we get into the reasons, it is important to know a little bit about the structure of a tooth.  The most common cause for sensitivity is due to exposed “dentin”.  Dentin is the second layer of tooth (see photo below).  This portion of the tooth is soft, porous and full of nerve fibers.  The dentin exposed to stimuli causes the sensitivity.  Keep reading to find out five main reasons for tooth sensitivity and what to do about it.

photo of the tooth structure

Gum Disease Can Cause Sensitive Teeth 

Your mouth is full of bacteria; some of these bacteria cause infection and disease if not removed by proper home care and dental cleanings.  As these bacteria fester and spread, you may notice red swollen gums that bleed.  Bleeding gums (gingivitis) can progress further, into gum disease and cause serious issues to the gum tissues, ligaments, and bone support.  Once damaged by the bacteria the gums, ligaments, and bone does not grow back.  The bacteria, in this case, is the cause of sensitivity by causing gum recession, exposing the dentin of the tooth as well as the sensitivity of the gums due to active infection.

This infection, whether gingivitis or gum disease, can spread into your bloodstream and effect you systematically.  It is never too late to get your health back on track by catching up with dental care.

Your Brushing Technique May Cause Sensitivity

If you are an overzealous brusher, using abrasive toothpaste, or using a medium/hard toothbrush you may be causing trauma to your teeth and gums.  Aggressive brushing often leads to receding gums and abrasion of the tooth surface.  When brushing, the goal is to remove bacteria as well as soft and sticky debris.  Utilize a soft or extra-soft toothbrush. Think gentle “circles” when brushing vs “scrubbing”.  The circular motion will slow you down and make you more aware of your technique and the amount of pressure being applied.  Angle the toothbrush toward the gums to remove the debris.

Sensitivity Caused By Tooth Erosion

The process of erosion is pretty straight forward, the tooth is weakened in some way to cause sensitivity.  Erosion can happen in the form of cavities, which are formed when acid produced by the bacteria and weakens the tooth.  Enamel erosion can also be caused by aggressive improper brushing (called abrasion), frequent consumption of acidic foods and beverages, acid reflux, and GERD.  Erosion weakens and thins enamel and/or exposes dentin, leading to sensitivity.

Try to avoid snacking on acidic food and sipping acidic drinks all day.  This puts you at high risk for erosion.  Be aware that even healthy food contain acids (ie: grapes, grapefruit, pineapple, oranges, tomatoes, etc.) If you have gum recession, the exposed dentin may be aggravated by the acidity.

It is best to eat and drink the acidic foods in one sitting.  The best option is to drink your acidic beverages with your meals.  This increases saliva in your mouth and lessens the pH.  Always wait to brush your teeth 20-40 minutes after eating or drinking acidic things!  This will allow your saliva to neutralize the acid in your mouth and avoid brushing it around.

Can Clenching and Grinding Teeth Cause Tooth Sensitivity?

It is spoken in the dental profession that your teeth should only touch five minutes total a day when you swallow.  If your teeth are touching more frequently, or even all day, you are causing additional wear to your teeth.  They should have space in between the top and bottom teeth while resting rather than touching.  Clenching causes excessive force on your teeth and supporting structures, which can potentially lead to gum recession and thinning of your enamel.  Both of which can lead to sensitivity.

More often than not, clenching and grinding happen subconsciously and while sleeping.  If you notice jaw pain, muscle pain, tension o headaches, there is a high chance you are clenching and grinding in your sleep.  This excessive force can thin the enamel and lead to sensitivity.  Your dental office can make you a custom night guard to protect your teeth and relax your muscles while sleeping.

Your Teeth’s Age 

Wear and tear over the years often leads to thinning of enamel, which often exposes the sensitive porous second layer, dentin.

Now, What Should You Do About Tooth Sensitivity?

It is important to talk to the dental professionals in your life regarding your sensitivity.  They can help you get relief and diagnose if there is an underlying issue.  Problems in the mouth causing mild sensitivity are often dismissed at home; however, if treatment is necessary it can cause pain and discomfort as well.   If treatment is necessary for your sensitivity, it is most likely caused by decay(cavities), a broken-down filling, a cracked or fractured tooth, and/or infections.

Do any of these symptoms hit home with you personally? I encourage you to talk to the dental professionals in your life to help you personalize the best treatment plan for you.

Are you looking for relief from “zingers” pain and discomfort?

Here are several ideas to try to help with some tooth sensitivity relief:

  • Over the counter sensitivity toothpaste (use consistently)
  • Over the counter fluoride mouthwash
  • Prescription strength fluoride toothpaste
  • Hygienist polish with desensitizing paste
  • Dental office fluoride treatment
  • In office desensitizer place on exposed root surfaces
  • Custom take-home trays for desensitizing teeth
  • Custom night guard/hard splint for clenching/grinding
  • Seek additional help from specialists for individualized care

This blog shares the “most common” types of sensitivity, causes, and treatment; however, be sure you talk with your dental office.  Without knowing the exact cause for the discomfort you will not be able to treat the symptoms or condition correctly!

Shelby, RDH

small graphic of sensitive teeth