What Causes Sensitive Teeth and Gums?

Woman with sensitive teeth at dentist

It’s estimated that one in every eight adults experiences tooth sensitivity on a regular basis. Sensitive teeth can become increasingly more painful, eventually preventing you from living a full and active life. In some cases, tooth sensitivity is caused by something that isn’t necessarily problematic or requires professional dental care. In other instances, however, it is essential to seek treatment from your dentist to understand the cause of the sensitivity and how to reverse any damage.

Receding Gums

As your gums recede due to age or poor oral hygiene, the roots of the teeth are exposed and are more sensitive than the crowns of the teeth. You may experience tooth sensitivity when eating or drinking hot or cold food items, or you may experience sensitivity occasionally throughout the day. The sensitivity from receding gums feels like a sharp, shooting pain that will often go away once a sensitivity product is used or a skin grafting surgery is performed to cover those exposed roots. Your dentist will be able to determine the best treatment for your unique situation.

Aggressive Tooth Brushing

Most adults should be using a soft bristle brush to prevent themselves from brushing too aggressively. However, even if you’re using a soft bristle brush, you may find that you brush too hard in hopes of removing more plaque and food particles from the teeth. Keep in mind that your gums are incredibly sensitive and applying too much pressure can cause receding gums and tooth sensitivity. This is why it is best to choose your toothbrush carefully and use gentler motions when brushing the teeth. You can also upgrade to a power toothbrush that does most of the cleaning for you with minimal effort on your part.

Erosion of Tooth Enamel Due to Acidic Food and Drink

If you find that you drink or eat a lot of acidic foods, the acids in these items can eventually erode the enamel and cause tooth sensitivity. Once the enamel is worn down, the sensitive dentin is exposed causing the sharp and shooting pains that you might feel throughout the day. In order to prevent the issue from getting worse, it’s important to limit your intake of acidic foods and drinks like vinegar, citrus fruits and juices, coffee, and wine.

Tooth Decay

When you have a cavity, it is a small portion of decay that is slowly eating away at the tooth. In the beginning, a cavity will be small in size and will be consuming the enamel and into the dentin. Once the decay hits this sensitive dentin, you may experience on-and-off sensitivity that will often alert you that there is a problem. If a cavity is not taken care of promptly, it can eventually become severe enough to require a root canal. Dental decay needs to be repaired as soon as it is detected, which is why it’s so vital to schedule routine trips to your dental office.

Broken or Chipped Teeth

When a tooth is chipped or broken, the dentin is exposed and is more sensitive to hot and cold food items as well as everyday wear and tear. In some cases, it’s easy to spot a cracked or broken tooth, especially if it is in the front of the mouth. However, there may be a time when you can’t put your finger on the sensitivity issue only to find from your dentist that you have a broken tooth. Some cracks are so small and minimal that they can be difficult to spot without the proper lighting and tools.

Teeth Grinding

If you have a habit of grinding your teeth, this could cause the breakdown of enamel and exposure to dentin. This can then lead to sensitivity issues that can make life miserable. If your tooth grinding is caused by stress, it is essential to minimize your stress levels by taking some time to yourself or away from stressful situations. If you grind your teeth at night, there are special mouth guards that can be used to effectively stop or minimize the amount that you grind your teeth.

Gastroesophageal Reflux (GERD)

GERD is a common disorder that results in stomach acid coming up through the esophagus and hitting the mouth. Other disorders that cause vomiting can also affect the sensitivity of the teeth. For example, those who are bulimic may experience tooth sensitivity because of the amount of stomach acid being allowed to hit the teeth on a regular basis. It is important to receive treatment for the underlying cause of your GERD or vomiting to minimize tooth and gum sensitivity.

Overuse of Teeth Whitening Treatments

While everyone wants a beautiful white smile, whitening too often with at-home whitening kits can cause sensitivity issues for some people. When you whiten your teeth, you are applying powerful bleaching ingredients that will penetrate the enamel. While it’s not considered harmful to use these products at home as directed or to opt for safe professional whitening treatments from your dentist, abusing whitening products too often can eventually cause the breakdown of enamel and result in permanent sensitivity. Instead, try using alternative products that can help keep your teeth white between whitening treatments, such as stain-fighting or charcoal toothpaste.

Progressive Periodontal Disease

Poor oral hygiene habits most often cause periodontal disease. While it starts as gingivitis, it can quickly progress into gum disease. With gum disease, the roots of the teeth become exposed and are more apt to be sensitive. The key to preventing periodontal disease is with proper brushing and flossing habits as well as visiting your dentist regularly for checkups and cleanings. If you currently have periodontal disease, you will more than likely receive a cleaning known as a scaling and root planning, which is a complicated name for a deeper dental cleaning.

How to Prevent and Reverse Tooth Sensitivity

The best way to prevent tooth sensitivity is to practice good oral hygiene habits. You should be using a soft bristle toothbrush and brushing gently yet effectively. Flossing is also important as it removes plaque and debris from between the teeth. Dentists often recommend using mouthwash twice a day to get rid of additional bacteria lurking in the mouth. It is also imperative that you visit your dentist twice a year for x-rays, a checkup, and teeth cleaning. Routine dental cleanings are essential for removing built-up and hardened plaque, and the exams will help you determine the cause of the sensitivity. For example, if the cause of your sensitivity is a cavity, you can be scheduled for a dental filling before the decay progresses. Also, be mindful of your diet and how it affects your oral health.

Assuming your sensitivity is just a minor issue may be a problem if it turns out to be something worse or something that requires treatment. Also, there are a plethora of sensitivity toothpaste and mouthwash products on the market that promotes relief of any pain or sensitivity that you’re experiencing. It is important to discuss your sensitivity with your dental provider who can also recommend or prescribe products for you to use.

About the Author

Dr. Scott Futch

Dr. Scott F. Futch, DDS

Dr. Scott Futch has been a clinical director for Absolute Dental since April 2017. Dr. Futch graduated from University of Michigan School of Dentistry and completed his training at the Dawson Academy; a postgraduate multi-disciplinary education clinical research facility dedicated to the advancement of dentistry. Dr. Futch has had over 25 years of experience as a skilled clinician, mentor and coach.

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