If you have ever taken a bite out of an ice cream or sipped from a hot mug of tea and felt a sharp, deep ache erupt immediately in one or more of your teeth, you’re already all too familiar with the pain of having sensitive teeth. Fortunately, there’s no need to suffer in silence or cease to enjoy your favourite foods and beverages; dental technology has advanced to the point where there are numerous inexpensive and effective treatment options for sensitive teeth available.

What Causes Sensitive Teeth?

Tooth sensitivity occurs when a tooth’s protective enamel is worn away, leaving the softer dentin below exposed. Dentin is much more permeable than enamel, and as such, when it is exposed to hot or cold substances, the abrupt change in temperature is felt by the tooth nerve below, resulting in sharp, sudden pain.

Enamel erosion can be caused by:

  • The repeated consumption of acidic foods and drinks. While beverages like soda pop and energy drinks are well-known offenders, many “healthy” foods and beverages are also highly acidic (most notably citrus fruits and drinks). Ergo, it’s possible to experience acid erosion even while enjoying a balanced diet.
  • Acid reflux and/or repeated vomiting. Conditions such as bulimia and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can be extremely damaging to tooth enamel owing to the strength of stomach acid. If you have either of these conditions, you absolutely must talk to your dentist about treatment options before extensive decay sets in.
  • Gum recession. Gum recession, which commonly occurs due to smoking, gum disease, and/or the effects of aging, can expose the root surface of the tooth, resulting in sensitivity.

Due to the prevalence of the above factors, today, over half the population (57%) has sensitive teeth.

How To Prevent Sensitive Teeth

While it’s difficult to prevent teeth from becoming sensitive while consuming a modern diet, if you brush your teeth twice a day with a low-abrasive toothpaste, rinse your mouth out with water after eating or drinking anything sweet or acidic (sugar is converted into acid by bacteria in the mouth), and try to limit the amount of sweet and acidic foods and beverages you consume, you should be able to keep your enamel relatively intact. However, if you have a medical condition that introduces stomach acid to the mouth or limits salivary flow (causing “dry mouth”), you will need to talk to your dentist about taking more thorough preventative measures.

How to Treat Tooth Sensitivity

If you experience only mild tooth sensitivity, you will likely be able to treat it with an over-the-counter anti-sensitivity toothpaste like Sensodyne. These toothpastes deposit a very fine layer of material that either acts as a calcium substitute, filling in fine cracks in the tooth enamel, or (as is the case with Sensodyne that contains NovaMin) actually reacts with the surface of the tooth to form a mineralized layer. Both of these technologies effectively “coat” the tooth so that the dentin tubules are no longer exposed, eradicating sensitivity.

Sometimes, however, anti-sensitivity toothpastes are not enough; if you have a medical condition or extremely eroded enamel, you will likely need professional treatment from your dentist in order to prevent further issues with sensitivity. Depending on the extent of the damage to your enamel, your dentist may choose to apply either a dental sealant or a bonded resin coating. A sealant is a temporary plastic coating (though in some cases it may last several years) that is placed over the surface of the tooth, protecting the enamel below. A bonded resin coating is a more permanent solution (lasting five or more years) wherein dental resin is applied to the surface of a tooth (or teeth) and then fixed in place with a special curing light. Bonding is ideal in situations where acid erosion has begun to damage the structure of a tooth, resulting in decay.

No matter what the exact causes of your dental sensitivity are, know that there is help available. Timely professional treatment will not only free you to enjoy your favourite foods and beverages once again, it’s one of the best steps you can take to safeguard the health of your mouth: Once you have begun to lose your enamel, your teeth become extremely vulnerable to decay owning to the soft, permeable nature of dentin. By sealing and protecting this vulnerable material before it becomes damaged, you can potentially avoid the need for more invasive and costly procedures in the future.