hat Is Tooth Sensitivity?

Tooth sensitivity refers to the feeling of pain or minor discomfort as a response to certain specific triggers that serve as extreme stimuli. It is experienced as a sharp and sudden pain at the root of the tooth or teeth affected. It may be felt as a pain shooting into the nerve endings of the root.  The triggers of sensitivity can include very hot or cold food and beverages, cold air or water, very sweet or acidic food or beverages, brushing or flossing, and using alcohol-based mouthwashes. These symptoms may appear to be caused by no specific reason, may come and go with time, and vary in intensity from mild to very intense. Research has suggested that at least 40 million adults suffer from sensitive teeth in the United States.

Diagnosis of Teeth Sensitivity

When a patient reports feeling tooth sensitivity upon experiencing any of the triggers stated above, it is time to book an appointment with the dentist for a complete oral check-up to look for any cavities, recessed gums, or loose filling that can be a cause of the problem. A visual exam following a routine dental cleaning would be conducted. The dentist may also use dental instruments to check for sensitive teeth or order an X-ray exam to identify the potential causes of cavities.

Causes of Teeth Sensitivity

Research suggests there is no group that is more vulnerable to sensitivity than any other and sensitivity can be experienced by anyone at any point in life. Healthy teeth have an enamel layer protecting the underlying dentin layer. The dentin is more sensitive and softer than the enamel. In healthy teeth, the roots of the tooth are protected by the gums. If the gum line has receded or the enamel has eroded, the dentin becomes exposed to air, food, and beverages. The nerve concentration in the dentin is high, making it more sensitive than the other parts of the tooth, and thus also more likely to experience pain.

Factors That Increase The Tooth Sensitivity:

– Brushing very harshly or with a hard-bristled brush

Harsh brushing on a regular basis can wear down the enamel and expose the dentin or can result in gum recession.

brush harshly

– Periodontal disease

Periodontal disease often results in gum recession which also causes the dentin to be exposed to external stimuli that are known to trigger sensitivity.


Gingivitis refers to sore or inflamed gum tissue. Such damaged gums risk exposing the root of the tooth, another part of a tooth that is densely concentrated with nerves.

– Cracked teeth

Cracked teeth risk getting infected with bacteria and leading to plaque-formation. Plaque can cause inflammation of the tooth pulp, and may even lead to the development of an infection or abscess.

– Habitual biting, clenching or grinding of teeth

People who habitually clench or grind their teeth are at a high risk of wearing down their enamel and exposing the dentin.

– Bad oral hygiene

Infrequent cleaning of the teeth and improper maintenance of oral hygiene can result in plaque-formation. The build-up of plaque causes inflammation in the tooth pulp, ultimately leading to increased teeth sensitivity.

– Use over-the-counter mouthwash frequently

Certain mouthwashes have a high acid content that erodes the enamel of the teeth if used very frequently or for a long period of time. Acidic mouthwashes also increase the potential of damage of already exposed dentin and worsens pre-existing sensitivity. Neutral mouthwashes are recommended by dentists and are definitely a better and safer option.

– Dental procedures

Certain dental procedures like professional cleaning, crown replacement, root planting, and similar tooth restoration procedures also increase the risk of sensitivity. The pain, however, usually lasts only four to six weeks following the procedure.

Treatment for Sensitive Teeth

Minor sensitivity pain is experienced by the majority at some point in their life and such mild sensitivity problems can easily be treated by home-based solutions. The following are ways in which minor tooth sensitivity can be treated effectively at home.

– Usdesensitizing toothpaste

Desensitizing toothpaste, after several applications, is known to block pain associated with sensitivity in no time. A variety of desensitizing toothpastes is available in the market and most of them are very effective home remedies for such situations. 

– Rinse with salt water

Saltwater is known to fight against bacteria in the mouth and improve oral hygiene.

– Avoid acidic foods

Acidic foods are known to damage the enamel and increase sensitivity. Avoiding such food, just like avoiding acidic mouthwashes, can minimize teeth sensitivity.

– Use a fluoride gel

Fluoride has the ability to strengthen the enamel and minimize pain by reducing any exposure of the dentine or the nerve. The dentist may use fluoride gel on sensitive teeth and suggest keeping prescription fluoride at home to be used in such cases.

Teeth sensitivity, if long-lasting, can be very disturbing. In case of prolonged sensitivity, a dentist might recommend dental intervention in any of the following ways:

– Desensitizing or bonding resin

Since sensitivity results from exposed roots, a dentist might recommend a procedure that includes using bonding resin to seal the sensitive root surfaces. During the procedure, the dentist might use anesthesia.

– Surgical gum graft

A loss of gum tissue around teeth can also be a leading cause of sensitivity in the affected teeth. If the tooth root has suffered a loss of gum tissue, the dentist would recommend a surgical gum graft, whereby gum tissue from another health tooth is taken and attached to the affected area. A gum graft can reduce sensitivity by closing off exposed roots.

– Root canal

The last resort for very intense sensitivity pain is a root canal. This procedure is recommended if other treatment methods are not effective. Root canal deals with problems concerning the dental pulp. A root canal is a guaranteed and long-term treatment of teeth sensitivity.

Teeth sensitivity is not an uncommon problem in the general population. Maintaining good oral hygiene is the key to avoiding sensitivity. If you do happen to experience shooting pain upon certain triggers, consult the dentist. You may be recommended to use home treatments like using desensitizing toothpastes, or you might need a dental procedure in severe cases. 

— By Arif Khan He is a professional dentist in KPK, Pakistan. His expertise involves cosmetic dentistry, maxillofacial surgery & prosthodontics.

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