Ouch! An aching tooth can be excruciating, but it may not mean you have a cavity. If hot or cold foods – iced or steaming tea, for two examples – cause sharp pain in a tooth, or if you experience pain when you floss, you may have what dentists call “sensitive teeth.”
You may think of teeth as being composed just of hard enamel. But underneath the thin enamel layer is dentin, a softer substance made up of microscopic tubules, like tiny tunnels. These tubules connect with your tooth nerves. If the dentin becomes exposed, hot, cold and acidic foods may reach a nerve and cause pain.
What causes dentin to become exposed? Tooth enamel can be worn down over time or gum disease – gingivitis or periodontitis – can cause the gums to pull away from the teeth and reveal the roots.
When you experience aching teeth, your first step is to see your dentist to determine if your pain is the result of decay. If it is, dental treatment may take care of it. If it isn’t, there are several steps you can take to reduce the pain. Many of them you can do on your own.
Brush more gently. Engaging your power muscles when you’re brushing your teeth or using a hard-bristled brush can wear down your enamel. Instead, opt for a soft brush and use light pressure. Brush gently around the gum line so you don’t damage the tissue.
If you grind your teeth, ask your dentist about a mouth guard. Grinding can also wear down the enamel. A mouth guard fitted to you is one way to protect your teeth.
Go easy on acidic foods. The high acid content in some foods and beverages can erode tooth enamel. Examples include citrus fruits and juices, tomato sauce, yogurt, even pickles and some tea. Drinking acidic liquids with a straw will limit contact with your tooth enamel, and drinking water soon after will remove some of the acid in your mouth.
Don’t brush right after eating acidic foods. If you do indulge in a plate of spaghetti, a salad with vinegar dressing or a morning glass of grapefruit juice, the Mayo Clinic recommends you not brush your teeth for at least 30 minutes. Acidic foods weaken the enamel right after they’re consumed, making it susceptible to damage.
Floss at home every day and have your teeth professionally cleaned at least twice a year. Excessive buildup of plaque can cause tooth enamel to erode. Flossing helps reduce plaque, and your hygienist can remove it completely.
Choose your toothpaste and mouthwash carefully. Some whitening formulas contain chemicals that make your teeth more sensitive. Mouthwashes with alcohol can have the same effect. Use neutral toothpastes and mouthwashes – or skip the mouthwash altogether. Below we recommend some products and procedures that may help.
In stubborn cases of tooth sensitivity, your dentist may suggest treatments such as a root canal.
But first, here are some things you can try:
- Desensitizing toothpaste. These do work. Toothpastes such as Sensodyne and Colgate Sensitive contain special ingredients, such as potassium nitrate or strontium chloride, that reduce pain by blocking the tubules in the dentin, keeping offending substances from reaching your roots. Make sure the toothpaste you buy is approved by the American Dental Association. When you have your teeth cleaned in our office, we use Colgate Sensitive Pre-Procedural Desensitizing Paste to help lessen the pain.
- Fluoride. This mineral is known to help prevent cavities, but it also strengthens tooth enamel. An application to sensitive teeth may reduce pain. We can apply a special fluoride varnish after cleaning to give our patients extra relief. And we also offer a new product, Teethmate by Kuraray, that can provide several months of relief.
- Bonding. Sometimes exposed roots can be treated with a bonding resin to cover the sensitive surfaces.
- Gum graft. For this procedure, a small amount of tissue is attached to the affected site to protect the exposed roots.
There is no reason for you to suffer with sharp tooth pain. If you are experiencing tooth sensitivity, let us check your teeth. We can advise you on treatments that will work best for you.