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By Dr. Rob Gausmann, DDS  – Printed July, 2013

Q: “My teeth are very sensitive – what can I do to help my teeth not be so sensitive?”

Tooth sensitivity is a common concern for many people. Sensitive teeth can cause overall discomfort and can limit choices for eating and drinking. However, the majority of time this sensitivity can be controlled or eliminated with just a few simple changes.

Understanding some basic tooth anatomy will help to clarify the causes and treatments for tooth sensitivity. The general shape of a tooth has a taper from the top to the bottom with a nerve centered in the middle. This is similar to the shape of an ice cream cone with the ice cream being the white part of the tooth and the cone being the root. This means the upper portion of the tooth is wider (thicker) and becomes thinner further down the root. This is important to understand because of the nerve location. Thicker tooth structure helps to decrease tooth sensitivity.

There are multiple causes for tooth sensitivity:

Brushing Too Hard – Aggressive brushing with a hard toothbrush is one of the most common causes of sensitivity. Often the gum tissue is “brushed” away where it once touched the tooth. With the loss of gum tissue, the tooth is now exposed. This area is not as thick and the nerve more easily senses cold. A soft bristled toothbrush is recommended to minimize gum tissue loss. Also, brushing in gentle circles versus scrubbing will help to minimize gum tissue loss. If these areas have lost a significant amount of gum tissue (or enamel) small fillings can replace the missing tooth structure providing thickness and insulation from the cold sensations.

Foods – Different foods can cause or intensify sensitivity. Cold foods such as ice cream and fruit can transmit the cold temperature directly to the teeth. Acidic foods can also aggravate sensitive teeth. The acid can wear down the tooth structure and allow access to the nerve. Even sweet foods can make teeth sensitive by similar means as the acidic foods. Avoiding these types of foods will help decrease tooth sensitivity.

Dental Work – When a tooth has a cavity the unhealthy tooth goes inward towards the nerve. This can cause sensitivity. Even after the cavity is removed and a filling is placed, cold sensitivity can continue because the filling material allows the cold to transmit to the nerve. Often, the tooth will naturally build a tolerance and the sensitivity will go away. However, sometimes the tooth continues to be very sensitive. A possible solution at this point is for a dentist to remove the sensitive nerve. This treatment is called a root canal.

Grinding/ Clenching Teeth – Grinding and clenching teeth can cause micro-fractures in the outer protective enamel. This can allow passageways to the nerve and cause sensitivity. Sometimes this fracturing can have the same appearance as toothbrush scrubbing. A protective appliance (nightguard) can help to minimize damage to the teeth caused by grinding and clenching.

Teeth Whitening – The materials used to remove stain from teeth can also penetrate to the inner tooth and cause sensitivity. Taking breaks between whitening sessions often allows the tooth to recover from sensitivity. Some toothpastes use gritty materials to rub the stain off of teeth. This can wear away tooth structure causing sensitivity and should be avoided.

Finally, some toothpaste is specifically designed to help minimize sensitive teeth. These are often labeled for this purpose. Fluoride has also been shown to help reduce sensitivity due to its ability to help strengthen teeth. A fluoridated toothpaste, mouth rinse, or trays can be used.

Keeping up with regular oral hygiene and visits to the dentist for cleanings will also reduce the risk of sensitive teeth. Using the above suggestions will often decrease tooth sensitivity and allow for a happy smile.

Dr. Rob Gausmann, DDS  – Gausmann Family Dental

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