What Causes Tooth Sensitivity?

October 12, 2011 | By | Comments (4)

Are you one of the many people who wince upon inhaling cold winter air, who brace for that unpleasant ZING! after taking a bite of ice cream, or for whom simply chomping down on a firm bagel gives a moment of YIKES!? I know I am!

In fact, nearly 40 million Americans have experienced sensitivity,  and it’s actually sort of fascinating how it happens. There are a few reasons, but thankfully, remedies exist—so you can enjoy every lick of ice cream. First, the why behind the winces:

1. Receding gums: When your gums start to recede, little slivers of the tooth’s root dentin becomes exposed—each spot like a little live wire. (Normally the gum keeps this dentin covered but once they are unsheathed, it can cause super-sensitivity.)

2. Worn-away enamel: In a similar vein is when the hard, protective enamel on your teeth gets eroded and again, the dentin loses protection—particularly when you drink a lot of acidic beverages like sodas, juices, or tea. (The phosphoric acid ingredient in most colas is a particularly pesky culprit as is the citric acid. People who delight in eating the lemon slivers in their cold drinks might want to think again!) In addition, certain tooth whitening procedures can also have sensitivity as an unwanted side effect.

3. Tooth grinding and clenching: This one is sort of surprising, but it actually is linked with #1, gum recession. When you grind or clench your teeth, this puts a lot of pressure on the gums—and that can lead them to recede! (It can also wear away enamel overall and cause micro-cracks in the teeth.) The more you clench, the more the gums suffer. (As a longtime clencher and grinder myself, I can say that wearing a custom bite guard at night really helps. I’ve had my little retainer for a few years now and while it’s not cute, it keeps my teeth protected and cuts down on my headaches.)

What helps: Besides bigger, more serious in-office procedures like tooth bonding, gum grafts, or special mouth guards in most cases of tooth sensitivity can be tamed via a simply tube of toothpaste. (And watching what you drink and eat.)

The hero ingredient is usually potassium nitrate, a compound that helps dull the pain by plugging up the tiny “holes” in the dentin that lead to pain. (The holes are a natural part of the dentin; their being exposed is the problem.)

The effects of these pastes build up over time, although I’ve also found that if I’m feeling a recurrence of sensitivity it helps to switch brands from time to time.

And there’s a new entry to the market, Colgate’s new Sensitive Pro-Relief Toothpaste (which hit shelves last month)—a product that promises to help squelch pain faster and keep it from returning, almost by creating a protective shield around your teeth. (How they accomplish this, despite using the same active ingredient as other similar products is beyond me!? Secret formula!)

Regardless, I got a press sample a while ago, and I’ve given it a try over the last few weeks, during which I had my regular dental cleaning (complete with what’s normally some uncomfortable tooth scaling and flossing!) but this time I hardly flinched and it seemed to go faster. Whether that’s due to my regular use of my very own DenTek pick and scaler (a great way to get tiny bits of food and plaque out of your teeth in between those hygiene visits) or if it’s the toothpaste, I don’t care! I’ll add it into the rotation!

And now, time for an ice-cold drink. Ahhh!