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What Causes Sensitive Teeth

by | Jan 12, 2020

Do you avoid eating or drinking certain foods and beverages because your teeth are sensitive? You are not alone. At least 40 million adults in the United States have had sensitive teeth at some point, according to the Academy of General Dentistry. Understanding the underlying cause of sensitive teeth is the key to avoiding the pain.

Sensitive teeth can affect the quality of your life, and even lead to more serious dental problems. When you have sensitive teeth, eating and drinking certain foods and beverages can cause pain. Left unaddressed, tooth sensitivity can cause you to stop from eating certain foods or drinks. Brushing your teeth can also be uncomfortable, and this discomfort can prevent you from brushing your teeth as well as you should.

Determining the root cause of sensitive teeth is the first step in treating it.

Root Cause of Sensitive Teeth

Teeth consist of several layers. Enamel is the tough, protective outer layer of teeth. Sitting just below enamel is dentin; this layer of sensitive tissue features tiny hollow canals that communicate with the nerve of the tooth, which sit at the center pulp of the teeth. These hollow canals, known as dentin tubules, are normally covered by enamel.

Acids in your mouth can wear away protective tooth enamel to leave the dentin tubules open, which makes the tooth hypersensitive to temperature, acid, and pressure. When exposed to hot, cold, acidic or sticky foods, the tiny canals in the dentin send a message of pain to the tooth’s nerve. This is why dentists refer to sensitive teeth as “dentin hypersensitivity.”

Other dental problems can cause dentin hypersensitivity. Gum disease, receding gum line, cracked teeth, erosion, abrasion, loss of tooth structure along the gum line, and tooth fracture may expose the dentin to cause sensitive teeth. Some dental procedures, such as tooth restorations and the gum treatments scaling and root planing, can expose the dentin. Extreme tooth brushing can also lead to dentin hypersensitivity.

Dentists Provide Recommendations and Treatments for Sensitive Teeth

Dentists can determine the underlying cause of sensitive teeth, and based on their findings, recommend a personalized treatment plan to stop or reduce tooth sensitivity.

Desensitizing toothpaste

Desensitizing toothpaste contains compounds that help block pain. Potassium nitrate in desensitizing toothpaste enters the dentin tubules and makes its way to the nerves of the dental pulp. Once in the dental pulp, potassium nitrate blocks the transmission of pain signals from the nerve to the brain. Potassium nitrate builds up inside the canals, so it takes several applications of desensitizing toothpaste to provide relief from sensitive teeth.

Desensitizing toothpaste can also contain strontium chloride, which blocks the dentin tubules to stop tooth sensitivity. Strontium chloride restores the dentin tubules to their normal “covered up” state.


Widely used to prevent cavities, fluoride creates a protective coating that helps insulate the tooth to prevent tooth sensitivity. Fluoride is especially helpful when dentin sensitivity is the result of eroded tooth enamel or gum disease.

Root canal

Dentists usually perform root canals when a tooth is badly decayed; the procedure involves removing the decayed part of the tooth and the nerve deep inside. Dentists typically recommend root canals as a treatment for sensitive teeth only when this decay causes serious pain from exposure to temperature or pressure.


Bonding is a dental procedure in which the dentist applies a coating that insulates the dentin from temperature and pressure.

Gum graft

A gum graft replaces lost gum tissue in an effort to cover up and protect exposed portions of the teeth. A dentist may recommend a gum graft to treat sensitivities occurring on the side of one or more teeth.

A dentist can also recommend ways to prevent sensitive teeth. Brushing twice daily can scrub away food particles to prevent tooth decay. Using a soft-bristled toothbrush can help prevent excessively vigorous brushing that can damage tooth enamel. Flossing daily removes food particles from between teeth. Your dentist may look for signs that you grind your teeth, and provide a night guard or suggestions to help you stop grinding your teeth. Your dentist might also recommend that you avoid acidic food and drinks.


Triangle Dentistry, located in Raleigh, NC, provides a state-of-the-art facility that offers exceptional general dental and specialty services guided by empathy of a patient’s needs and desires. Services range from dental crowns to veneers and whitening procedures. For further information, questions, or to schedule an appointment, contact the office at (919) 747-3608.