How To Fight Tooth Sensitivity

One of the most common complaints that dentists receive at recall visits from healthy patients is sensitivity. Sensitivity affects about half of my patients at some point in their lives. It can be caused by multiple factors, but usually it is caused by root exposure. If you have receded gums, you may be painfully aware of how it can feel when something touches your exposed root. ZING! Ouch, that is no fun. This sensation can also be elicited by exposure to hot and cold.

When root exposure is severe, the best and most long-lasting solution to pain is to have a gum graft. It's a hard sell for most patients. However when root exposure is minor, I can often manage patients’ sensitivity by switching toothpastes and changing their brushing technique.

If a patient tells me that they have suddenly noticed that their teeth are sensitive, the first question I ask is “Did you switch toothpastes?”.Often times, the answer is “Well yes, Doc, I have been using this new whitening toothpaste I found out about on facebook!” or “Yes, Doc, I heard that Fluoride is very dangerous and so I now brush with a ‘natural’ product.”

The problem with whitening toothpastes is that they are very abrasive - they scratch away stains like sandpaper, but also scratch away a little bit of the protective cover of the tooth every time you brush with them. If you have gum recession, it doesn’t take much for a whitening toothpaste to do painful damage. In this case, I recommend switching to a less abrasive toothpaste such as Sensodyne.

If you feel like you can’t keep stains off your teeth, you should consider using an electric toothbrush such as a Sonicare and/or increasing your frequency of dental cleanings.

Switching to a fluoride-free toothpaste can also elicit sensitivity. Fluoride is a natural salt which is present across the world. In Hillsborough County, we add fluoride to the water system because it isn’t present in high enough concentrations to decrease tooth decay. Fluoride is a desensitizer - it reacts chemically with the surface of the tooth, making the tooth “harder” and less able to dissolve when exposed to acids. In addition, it blocks nerve endings in sensitive areas so that sensitivity can be decreased or eliminated. Some fluoridated toothpastes, such as Sensodyne, also contain potassium nitrate, another salt, used to block nerve endings and decrease sensitivity.

Overload of the system is another reason why people suddenly experience sensitivity. This can come in many forms. Sometimes a stressful event can lead to an increase in clenching and grinding at night. This then leads to sore muscles and often sore teeth in the morning. With that first glass of cold orange juice you may note unexpected pain. A night guard can typically help with this type of discomfort and is recommended as the first line of defense against destructive forces.

Sensitivity can also be related to recent dental work or having a change in the bite. Although this is typically transient, it can be frustrating. Once it is verified that a new restoration is not “high” the best cure is “sensitivity relief” toothpaste and time. It usually subsides within two weeks but occasionally will linger on for a period of months.

If you have tried the listed methods to treat sensitivity and are still experiencing pain, the best thing you can do is see your dentist. Although we never like to hear that people are having a problem we almost always have a solution!