What are sensitive teeth?
Tooth sensitivity results from irritation of nerves in the tooth, which leads to pain or discomfort when teeth are exposed to hot or cold temperatures or to acidic food and beverages. Sensitivity can also occur during flossing or brushing of the teeth and while eating or chewing.
Above the gums, teeth are protected by a hard coating called enamel. The roots are protected by a similar substance called cementum. The enamel and cementum cover the dentin layer of the tooth. Dentin is also hard, but it is filled with microscopic channels known as tubules. In the center of the tooth is the pulp, which is the vital, or living, part of the tooth containing nerves and blood vessels.
Damage to the enamel or cementum exposes the dentin. Stimulation and irritation of the nerves of the teeth can occur through the tubules of the dentin, leading to pain or discomfort.
Damage to the enamel or cementum can result from tooth decay, tooth trauma, and tooth erosion or wear. A common cause of tooth decay is poor oral hygiene. Regular brushing, flossing, and dental checkups can help prevent tooth decay. Tooth trauma can be caused by injury to the mouth, from biting down too hard, from biting on something hard, or from tooth grinding, which can wear down the teeth.
Repeated exposure to stomach acid, which may occur with bulimia or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), can erode the tooth enamel. Erosion can also be caused by brushing your teeth too hard.
Sensitive teeth rarely represent a medical emergency. However, sensitivity can be associated with tooth decay, which can lead to cavities and their complications. It can also be related to traumatic damage to the tooth, which can become infected if left untreated.
Seek prompt medical care if you have a broken or cracked tooth, or if you have symptoms that suggest a cavity, cracked tooth, or infection. These symptoms include sensitivity to heat, significant overall sensitivity, pain when biting or chewing, fever, toothache, and swelling or redness of the gums. If your tooth sensitivity is persistent or causes you concern, contact a medical professional.
What other symptoms might occur with sensitive teeth?
Sensitive teeth may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the teeth may also involve other body systems.
Sensitive teeth may accompany other symptoms affecting the mouth including:
Sensitive teeth may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:
In some cases, sensitive teeth may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious, or even life-threatening, condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of the following symptoms:
Sensitive teeth may be caused by various habits that contribute to tooth decay including:
Sensitive teeth can also be caused by trauma including:
Sensitive teeth can result from conditions or actions that erode the tooth enamel including:
In some cases, sensitive teeth may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:
To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your sensitive teeth including:
Tooth sensitivity can diminish quality of life, with loss of weight and poor hygiene habits. Sensitive teeth usually indicate damage to tooth enamel or the cementum. Because these layers protect the crown and root of the tooth, if severe enough, the damage must be repaired to help reduce the risk of infection. Ongoing damage resulting from decay and grinding can be lessened with good oral hygiene and a mouth guard to protect the teeth at night. Good oral hygiene includes frequent flossing and brushing, using a soft toothbrush, and regular dental examinations. Relaxation techniques and stress reduction can help with tooth grinding. A balanced diet that avoids acidic foods can be helpful.
Management of bulimia and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can help prevent ongoing erosion of tooth enamel. Furthermore, each of these conditions can result in serious or life-threatening complications if left untreated.
Because sensitive teeth can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:
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