Dr Caitlin: The Problem Of Sensitive Teeth

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Dr Caitlin O’Connor of Tralee Medical Centre in St Brendan’s Park on the problem of sensitive teeth…

Sensitive Teeth is one of the most common complaints to dentists – pain or discomfort when your teeth are exposed to stimuli such as cold or hot drinks, cold air and sweet foods.

Having sensitive teeth can mean anything from getting a mild twinge to having severe discomfort that can continue for several hours.

It can also be an early warning sign of more serious dental problems. Many people suffer from sensitive teeth and it can start at any time. It is more common in people aged between 20 and 40. Women are more likely to be affected than men.

Why does it happen?

Hot and cold temperature changes cause your teeth to expand and contract. Over time, your teeth can develop microscopic cracks that allow these sensations to seep through to the nerves.

Exposed areas of the tooth can cause pain and even affect or change your eating, drinking and breathing habits.

Taking a spoonful of ice cream for example can be a painful experience for people with sensitive teeth.

The part of the tooth we can see is covered by a layer of enamel that protects the softer dentine underneath.

If the dentine is exposed, a tooth can become sensitive. This usually happens where the tooth and the gum meet and the enamel layer is much thinner.

Many factors can cause teeth to become sensitive

Toothbrush abrasion – brushing too hard, and brushing from side to side, can cause enamel to be worn away, particularly where the teeth meet the gums. The freshly exposed dentine may then become sensitive.

Dental erosion – this is loss of tooth enamel caused by attacks of acid from acidic food and drinks. If enamel is worn away the dentine underneath is exposed, which may lead to sensitivity.

Gum recession – gums may naturally recede (shrink back), and the roots will become exposed and can be more sensitive. Root surfaces do not have an enamel layer to protect them.

Gum disease – a build-up of plaque or tartar can cause the gum to recede down the tooth and even destroy the bony support of the tooth. Pockets can form in the gums around the tooth, making the area difficult to keep clean and the problem worse.

Tooth grinding – this is a habit which involves clenching and grinding the teeth together. This can cause the enamel of the teeth to be worn away, making the teeth sensitive.

A cracked tooth or filling – a cracked tooth is one that has become broken. A crack can run from the biting surface of a tooth down towards the root. Extreme temperatures, especially cold, may cause discomfort.

Tooth bleaching – some patients have sensitivity for a short time during or after having their teeth bleached.

So what should I do?

1. Consult your dentist if you are unsure of proper oral hygiene techniques. Well-intentioned but incorrect techniques (such as brushing too hard or snapping floss against the teeth and gums) can injure the gums, exposing the roots of the teeth and increasing sensitivity. Brushing too hard is often an ingrained habit. You are brushing too hard if the bristles on the brush end up pointing in several different directions.

2. Make sure you brush gently with a soft-bristled tooth brush, or use a powered toothbrush that has a pressure sensor. This type of brush stops working if you apply too much pressure during brushing.

3. Your dentist may advise you to avoid using teeth-whitening solutions, including whitening or tartar control toothpastes, which can increase tooth sensitivity. Regular use of de sensitising toothpaste or a mouth wash may be recommended to maintain the teeth resistance to stimuli.

4. Avoid acid foods (such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, pickles or even tea) and excessive amounts of diet drinks, because they may also increase tooth sensitivity.

5. Try to quit smoking – it can cause receding gums and lead to increased sensitivity.

6. Try one of the toothpastes designed for sensitive teeth. They usually contain a desensitising agent that protects the exposed dentin by blocking the tubes in the teeth that are connected to nerves.

There are many brands of toothpaste on the market made to help ease the pain of sensitive teeth.

The toothpaste should be used twice a day to brush your teeth. It can also be rubbed onto the sensitive areas. These toothpastes can take anything from a few days to several weeks to take effect.

Your dentist should be able to advise you on which type of toothpaste would be best for you. Brush your teeth twice a day for two minutes with fluoride toothpaste.

Use small circular movements with a soft- to medium-bristled brush. Try to avoid brushing your teeth from side to side.

7. Change your toothbrush every two to three months or sooner if it becomes worn.

8. Have sugary foods and fizzy and acidic drinks less often. Try to have them only at mealtimes.

9. If you grind your teeth, talk to your dentist about the possibility of having a mouth guard made to wear at night.

10. Visit your dentist regularly, as often as they recommend.

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