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What causes sensitive teeth?

A young woman has a pained expression on her face as she drinks a glass of ice water

Discover the most common causes of sensitive teeth, and the steps you can take to relieve symptoms

If biting into your ice cream or having a sip of some hot tea is causing you to wince in pain then it’s likely you’re showing signs of having sensitive teeth. And not only can sensitive teeth take the joy out of life’s little pleasures, at their worst the pain can affect how you operate on a day-to-day basis.

In this explainer article, we’ll look at the root causes of sensitive teeth, the reasons that tooth sensitivity arises in the first place and the steps you can take to tackle symptoms.

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Understanding sensitive teeth

Before we jump in, it’s good to have a basic understanding of how your teeth work. Teeth are formed of a series of layers: the hard outermost layer is the enamel, then comes the slightly softer, porous layer of dentine and finally at the centre of the tooth is the pulp cavity, where you’ll find the nerve and blood vessels.

“Weakened enamel is one of the key things that can cause sensitivity. This is due to enamel defects or genetic conditions,” explains dentist Tanya Hopper of Horizon Dental Clinic. “However, the most common reasons for sensitivity are tooth wear due to acid erosion or brushing too hard, gum recession leading to exposure of the root surface (which isn’t covered in hard enamel), a cracked tooth or tooth decay.

“The sensitivity is caused by the dentine layer underneath the enamel becoming exposed. Dentine is made up of many microscopic tubules that contain water. This water travels up and down the tubules and transmits stimuli (normally to hot/cold/sweet things) to the pulp (blood and nerve supply within the tooth) causing a short/sharp pain.”

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What are the major causes of sensitive teeth?

There are a number of reasons that enamel becomes weak. Below are a few of the leading culprits.

Gum disease – Poor dental hygiene, among other factors, can cause the gums to recede. This exposes the layer of dentine, which leads directly through to the nerves at the centre of the tooth. As such, the consumption of hot, cold, sweets or sour food and drink can lead to twinges of pain.

Heavy-handed brushing – You might believe that brushing vigorously, or using a hard toothbrush, will result in cleaner teeth; but you can actually end up doing more harm than good. Such a harsh brushing action can damage the enamel, which again exposes the softer layers beneath and making you more susceptible to pain.

Too much acidic food and drink – Regular consumption of highly acidic food and drink, including fruit and fizzy drinks, has a tendency to erode enamel. This can leave you vulnerable to cavities as well as resulting in sensitivity as hot or cold stimuli reach the nerve centre of teeth.

Tooth decay – Again, tooth decay as a result of eating too much sugary food and neglecting dental hygiene can result in damage to the enamel. The less there is to protect the tooth, the more likely you are to experience sensitivity.

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How should I treat sensitive teeth?

Change your toothbrush

One way you can reduce damage to the enamel from brushing is to swap out your current toothbrush for a soft-bristled one. This will result in less abrasion to the surface of the tooth, keeping the enamel intact.

Avoid sugary and acidic foods and drinks

Cutting out sugary and acidic foods and drinks can help to prevent tooth decay, which can lead to sensitivity.

Visit the dentist regularly

Nobody likes going to the dentist, but frequent visits will help to ensure your teeth stay healthy. If you’re experiencing sensitivity, your dentist will be able to establish the cause and advise you on the most appropriate action.

Use a specially designed toothpaste

There are a number of toothpastes on the market that have been specially formulated to reduce sensitivity. Brushing with one of them morning and night can help with the pain and hopefully get your teeth back to normal.

“In terms of how these toothpastes work, they normally contain potassium nitrate, stannous fluoride or both,” explains Hopper. “These physically plug the open and exposed dentine tubules, and over time allow some remineralisation of the dentine, decreasing the amount of open tubules and thus less ability for stimuli to reach the pulp.”

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