I Have Sensitive Teeth.  What Can I Do?

Tooth sensitivity is a very common problem.  There are many products marketed toward people who suffer from sensitive teeth.  But do they actually work?  In order to learn which products might work for you, you need to first understand the causes of sensitivity, and then the ways the various products fight it.

Causes of Teeth Sensitivity

Teeth are made to withstand the normal forces of eating and speaking.  In the absence of dental disease, like cavities, gum disease and cracks, this holds true.  However, most people subject their teeth to thermal, chemical and mechanical forces that are outside the realm of “normal” eating and speaking, and this places the enamel and supporting gum tissues at risk for failure.  By this, we mean that they fail to do their jobs in insulating the tooth from the sensations of hot and cold.

Active Dental Disease

It is also important to remember that active dental disease is often the cause of tooth sensitivity.  In cases of cavities, progressive gum disease, or cracked teeth, the products and tips recommended here will not stop the sensitivity.  Only dental treatment will do that.

Receding Gums

Many people have gum recession that exposes the roots of the teeth.  There are various causes of gum recession, which we will not go into at this time.  Here we are more concerned with the result of gum recession, which can be tooth sensitivity.  The reason receding gums cause sensitivity is that they expose the roots of the teeth.  Roots do not have a protective enamel covering; instead, they contain small pores that allow sensations in the mouth to reach the nerve within the tooth.  Dentists often refer to this condition as exposed dentin or dentinal hypersensitivity.

Thin or Weakened Enamel

Another scenario that can cause sensitivity is thin or weakened enamel.  Enamel does not repair itself, so once it is gone, it is gone.  We lose enamel over time through the process of chemical erosion or mechanical abrasion.  Erosion occurs when acids gradually wear down and thin the outer covering of enamel on the teeth.  This is common in people who suffer from acid reflux (GERD) or frequent vomiting.

Mechanical abrasion occurs as a result of repetitively brushing the teeth with harsh substances, using hard-bristled toothbrushes, or clenching and grinding the teeth at night.  All of these mechanisms slowly wear away the enamel and make it thinner than normal.

Heavy Teeth Clenching and/or Grinding

While teeth clenching/grinding may lead to mechanical abrasion and thinning of the enamel, even teeth with healthy, intact enamel can become sensitive under the heavy forces of clenching and grinding.  This is because the excessive forces irritate the nerve within the tooth, making it hyper-reactive to any stimulus.

How to Counteract the Causes of Teeth Sensitivity

In order to fight tooth sensitivity, it helps to understand the potential causes.  Then you can decide which remedy will work best for you.  If you know that you have receding gums or weak enamel, you want to use a product that strengthens and hardens the hard structures of the teeth (the enamel and dentin).  If you know that you’ve been grinding your teeth at night, you should consider protecting your teeth against clenching and grinding first.

Products to Strengthen Teeth

There are many different products available over-the-counter today to fight sensitive teeth.  It’s important to read the ingredients and not just the claims on the label.  Look for these ingredients to get real relief.

Potassium Nitrate – Potassium nitrate is the active ingredient in Sensodyne products.  This ingredient has a calming effect on the hypersensitive nerve.  These products are readily available in all US drugstores and supermarkets.  They do require consistent use for about two weeks before you notice an improvement.

Fluoride – Fluoride fights sensitivity by hardening enamel and dentin in a process called remineralization.  This also helps teeth fight acid attacks, prevent erosion, and stop bacteria from creating cavities.  Fluoride is in most over-the-counter toothpastes already.

Nanohydroxyapatite – This is a relatively new ingredient in toothpastes, and you can find these Japanese or Canadian products online.  Simply search for nanohydroxyapatite toothpaste on Amazon.  This tiny particle helps harden enamel and dentin and block the tiny pores to prevent cold sensations from reaching the nerve.  Not yet approved by the FDA, this ingredient is very effective at fighting sensitivity.

Arginine – Arginine is an amino acid that, when used in conjunction with calcium carbonate, provides wonderful relief for tooth sensitivity.  You can find it in Tom’s of Main Rapid Relief toothpaste, Colgate’s Anywhere Anytime serum, or BasicBites soft chews (a Tootsie Roll-like candy containing arginine and calcium carbonate.

Protection against Clenching/Grinding

If you suffer from sensitivity on most or all of the teeth in your mouth, you may want to try wearing a protective nightguard to separate the teeth while you sleep.  This will relieve some of the heavy forces that could be irritating the nerve.  You can begin by trying an over-the-counter guard.  Beware that some people find that they actually clench or grind more in a soft, squishy nightguard.  The best solution, which may be unavailable until dentists are able to reopen for normal business, is a hard, custom-fitted acrylic nightguard made by your dentist.

The OTC guard may allow you to try it out to determine whether you actually do grind your teeth, whether it relieves the sensitivity, and whether you can tolerate a mouthpiece while you sleep.  (Also note that a custom-made nightguard is much smaller than the OTC ones.)

Still No Relief?

If none of these solutions help you, please come see us for an evaluation as soon as we return to normal operating procedures.  We need to evaluate the teeth and gums for signs of active dental disease first, and then we will recommend options to relieve your sensitivity.

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