IF EVERY BITE of ice cream or every sip of coffee gives your teeth a nasty jolt, then you know what it’s like to live with tooth sensitivity. At least one in every eight Americans (including kids) has sensitive teeth. As your South San Francisco dentist, we explain why this happens to so many of us and what you do about it.
The Basics of Dental Anatomy
It’s important to understand a little about dental anatomy when thinking about how tooth sensitivity works. The visible portion of the tooth (the crown) is made up of three layers: the outer tooth enamel layer (the hardest substance in the human body), the dentin layer (more like normal bone) and the dental pulp layer at the center (nerves and blood vessels).
Sensitive Exposed Nerves
The nerves at the center of each tooth sense what’s going on at the surface through thousands of microscopic tubules running through the dentin layer. If the enamel wears too thin, the tubules become exposed and the nerves in the teeth start feeling way more input than they’re supposed to, making temperature changes or even a sudden sweet or sour taste too much to handle.
What Causes Sensitivity?
Aside from enamel erosion, there are other things that cause sensitivity. Root exposure is one. Unlike the crown of the tooth, the root lacks the protective enamel layer. It relies mainly on gum tissue. Gum recession (often caused by teeth grinding or overbrushing) leaves the roots unprotected. Cavities or damage to a tooth like chips or fractures can also cause sensitivity, especially to hot or sweet things.
Protecting Teeth From Sensitivity
There are a few things we can do about sensitive teeth. Step one is to get rid of a hard-bristled toothbrush and buy a soft-bristled one instead. Soft bristles are enough to effectively clean away plaque, while hard bristles can damage the enamel and gum tissue even more. It’s also a good idea to switch to a toothpaste formulated for sensitive teeth. Cutting down on sugar intake and avoiding very acidic foods and drinks (especially sugar) will help as well.
The Dentist Can Help
If you’ve been dealing with tooth sensitivity, schedule an appointment with your dentist so we can discover the cause. Beyond what you can do to reduce the symptoms and strengthen your teeth and gums at home, your dentist can apply a fluoride varnish, prescribe a stronger desensitizing toothpaste if needed, or recommend a gum graft or dental restoration to repair any significant damage.