Sensitive teeth feel sore when exposed to changes in temperature, as experienced when eating hot or cold foods and when breathing in air. Discomfort is felt through the teeth because the condition of the tooth is weak, causing nerves within the dental pulp to respond to these changes.
The tooth may twinge or suddenly have a passing ache. Tooth sensitivity can develop into full blown toothache and oral pain if the underlying causes of sensitive teeth are not treated by a dental professional.
Tooth sensitivity can result from a range of factors, including:
When teeth are not brushed according to proper technique, the gum tissue can become raw, irritated and recede away from the tooth structure. Gums may also recede as a result of gingivitis and gum disease.
Dentists guide individuals on how much pressure to apply when brushing teeth. Increasingly, electric toothbrushes are used to aid teeth brushing technique.
Poor oral hygiene leads to plaque sticking to the tooth surface. When not cleaned away the plaque hardens into calculus and tartar, which is develops acid as bacteria colonises on the surface. The acid erodes tooth enamel and may cause tooth infection and decay.
Similarly, a diet rich in high acidic and sugary foods contributes to acids and sugars eroding the tooth surface and exposing the inner dentin.
Individuals who desire sparkling white teeth may overuse home teeth whitening kits or apply bleach unsafely, damaging the tooth surface and resulting in tooth sensitivity. Dentists offer professional teeth whitening treatments to reduce teeth sensitivity.
Oral infections develop from plaque and bacteria build-up, when teeth are not adequately cleaned or if emergency dental care is not sought after an oral injury. These infections can manifest as an abscess and/or gingivitis.
Gingivitis is gum inflammation in which the gums become irritated, red, swollen and sore. The inflamed gums may bleed when teeth brushing and eating, and if left untreated, develop into gum disease or periodontal disease. Teeth become sensitive because gingivitis causes gum recession and exposure of underlying dental structures.
Periodontal disease is when the periodontal ligament joining bone structure to the gum tissue becomes damaged and loosens teeth. Individuals with advanced gingivitis that becomes periodontal disease may suffer infections and tooth loss.
Other oral diseases such as caries and mouth cancer can develop from poor oral hygiene, improper diet, smoking, alcohol consumption and oral injuries. Oral diseases lead to dental nerves becoming exposed and result in tooth sensitivity. Early onset of oral disease may be experienced as tooth sensitivity accompanied by other symptoms.
Teeth grinding or bruxism habits can during the day when concentrating or when sleeping, often being caused by issues related to anxiety. The outer surface enamel becomes worn through this forceful contact of teeth until the inner dentin is exposed. Tooth sensitivity occurs as a result of teeth wear from grinding and exposure of inner tooth layers.
Many of the above conditions mentioned, such as tooth decay, infection, oral injury, gum disease, and teeth grinding, can cause tooth damage and result in tooth fractures, breaks, chips and cracks. Once damaged the break in the tooth outer surface exposes the inner dentin and dental pulp where there is kept nerve endings. Sensitive teeth are experienced when these nerve endings come into contact with foods and air. Not treating the damaged tooth may lead to infection and tooth sensitivity becoming painful toothache.
Individuals suffering with tooth sensitivity can visit their dentist to find out why their teeth feel sore. When left untreated the cause of the tooth sensitivity can escalate and require emergency dental care.
However, individuals who attend dental check-ups can have their oral health monitored for signs of abnormal dental conditions. Diagnostic tests can include a physical examination of oral structures, X-rays and CT scans. If mouth cancer is suspected a biopsy may be necessary and will be further evaluated in a dental laboratory.
Where infection is present the dentist may conduct further diagnostic imaging tests to determine how far the infection has spread through the root canals and whether root canal treatment is necessary.
The treatment a dentist recommends for sensitive teeth will depend on the diagnosis, underlying cause and the severity of the condition. The aim is to restore teeth to good health as soon as possible and preserve existing tooth structure.
Tooth sensitivity is a symptom and treatments may initially include the use of desensitising gel, fluoride desensitising mouth rinse and painkillers to stop tooth soreness. However, such treatment may be temporary while more permanent solutions are evaluated.
Treatments for the underlying causes of tooth sensitivity:
Treating the cause of tooth sensitivity will reduce the likelihood of sensitive teeth and promotes better oral health. However, preventing the start of tooth sensitivity is a wiser option.
Tooth sensitivity can be prevented through eating a balanced diet, following a healthy lifestyle, maintaining oral hygiene, having only professional teeth whitening, attending dental check-ups, obtaining emergency care when oral trauma occurs and having any treatment needed to protect teeth and restore function.
Dentists provide advice on how to prevent tooth sensitivity. Seeking early screening and treatment is vital to prevent further oral trauma that may escalate tooth sensitivity, dental damage, toothache and tooth loss.