If you feel some kind of pain when you take cold or hot foods or drinks, for example ice cream, you may think it’s a cavity, but doctors say it’s also common in people who have sensitive teeth. Dr Gilbert Nuwagaba, an adult and pediatric dentistry specialist, says that teeth sensitivity refers to a painful condition in teeth that is a result of the exposure of the inner layers of the teeth (dentine). This condition, he says, is due to dentine, which is the second layer of the tooth sandwiched between the enamel and the pulp chamber. It is characterized by nerve endings that cause pain when exposed.
He adds that the dentine also contains dentin-al tubules which bear a fluid, hence thermal and chemical changes on a tooth elicit a stimulus response. Every tooth is sensitive to thermal and chemical changes, notably one can easily prove this by switching from a hot drink and simultaneously take on a cold one, then you will come to find that the teeth do have a weird feeling and that’s the dentine at work.
“This graduates into the dentine hypersensitivity (teeth sensitivity) when the stimulus (be it hot or cold chemical) generates a sharp yet painful response in the tooth or teeth. Thus, any factor that does erode the enamel has dentine exposed factors in the hypersensitivity in teeth,” Dr Nuwagaba says.
Dr Rogers Namanya, a dental surgeon at Legacy Clinics, explains that the sensitivity may be temporary or a chronic problem, and it can affect one tooth, several teeth, or all the teeth in a single individual. It can have a number of different causes, but most cases of sensitive teeth are easily treated with a change in oral hygiene regimen. He says that people with sensitive teeth may experience pain or discomfort as a response to certain triggers. You may feel this pain at the roots of the affected teeth.
Dr Nuwagaba says tooth sensitivity is provoked by decayed teeth usually present with a destroyed enamel, hence, exposing the dentine and thus sensitivity. As chewing (eating) commences, teeth glide over one another and these eating movements cause a wear and tear on them instigating dentin-al exposure. He also points out that toothbrush bristles normally are plastic, therefore, consistent and vigorous use of a toothbrush subjects the tooth surface to more tear and wear.
“Receded gums expose the root of a tooth which is mostly covered by dentine, hence sensitivity. Gum recession is a condition in which the gum height decreases to a rather lower level in comparison to its initial state. It’s caused mostly by calculus and plaque, poor brushing habits, age, periodontal diseases, tooth picks, and tooth extractions,” he notes. Dr Nuwagaba also says that teeth are injured in due course of our activities, for example, bottle opening, boxing, falls, and accidents. Fractures of teeth usually cause dentin exposure, hence sensitivity.
Dr Namanya adds that some people naturally have more sensitive teeth than others due to having thinner enamel. The enamel is the outer layer of the tooth that protects it. In many cases, the tooth’s enamel can be worn down from brushing the teeth too hard, using a hard toothbrush, grinding the teeth at night, regularly eating or drinking acidic foods and beverages. Sometimes, other conditions can lead to tooth sensitivity, for instance, gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) can cause acid to come up from the stomach and oesophagus, and may wear down teeth over time, he adds.
Namanya highlights that conditions that cause frequent vomiting — including gastroenteritis and bulimia — can also cause acid to wear down the enamel. But also, broken teeth, chipped teeth, and worn-down fillings or crowns can leave the dentin of the tooth exposed, causing sensitivity. If this is the case, you will likely only feel sensitivity in one particular tooth or region in the mouth instead of the majority of teeth.
Your teeth, Dr Namanya says, may be temporarily sensitive following dental work like getting fillings, crowns, or teeth bleaching. In this case, sensitivity will also be confined to one tooth or the teeth surrounding the tooth that received dental work. This should lessen after several days. He says that if you’re experiencing tooth sensitivity for the first time, make an appointment with your dentist. You can book an appointment with a dentist in your area who can look at the health of your teeth and check for potential problems like cavities, loose fillings, or recessed gums that could be causing the sensitivity. He also says that the dentist can do this during a routine dental cleaning. They clean the teeth and do a visual exam. They may touch your teeth using dental instruments to check for sensitivity, and they might also order an X-ray on your teeth to rule out causes like cavities.
Dr Namanya says to choose toothpaste that’s labelled as being specifically made for sensitive teeth. These toothpastes won’t have any irritating ingredients, and may have desensitizing ingredients that help block the discomfort from traveling to the nerve of the tooth. And choose an alcohol-free mouth rinse, as it will be less frustrating to sensitive teeth.
To prevent this, Dr Nuwagaba advises brushing teeth appropriately (use a soft toothbrush), reduce acidic food and drinks in diet and seek dental care to have decayed teeth treated and calculus removed. Namanya notes that receding gums can be treated by brushing more gently and maintaining good oral hygiene. In cases of intense sensitivity and discomfort due to severe gum decline, your dentist may recommend using a gum graft. This procedure involves taking tissue from the palate and placing it over the root to protect the tooth.