Tips From a Dentist: What to Do About Sensitive Teeth

By Rebecca Koenigsberg,
September 4, 2015 Updated: July 25, 2017

Tooth sensitivity can be more than just irritating—it can be extremely uncomfortable. Common triggers are cold liquids and food or cold air and sweets.

First, it is important to distinguish sensitivity from more serious dental problems. Sensitivity refers to transient (that is, lasting a few seconds) pain that occurs when cold or sweet touch the tooth. Prolonged pain, throbbing, spontaneous pain, or pain when the teeth touch is not sensitivity and should be checked by a dentist.

Teeth have a hard outer covering of enamel that has no nerve endings. Most of the tooth and the entire root of the tooth is made of dentin.

Dentin has tiny tubes filled with liquid that, when disturbed, cause the nerve to react and trigger a short, sharp pain, aka tooth sensitivity. Ideally, dentin is covered with enamel or cementum. When enamel wears or the gums recede, dentin can become exposed to the environment.

Tooth Anatomy Preview 3

If you experience sensitivity, the first course of action can be a desensitizing toothpaste, which contains potassium nitrate, according to Rebecca Koenigsberg a dentist at Gallery 57 Dental in New York City. There are many over the counter brands available, and they all have the same active ingredient, potassium nitrate.

These desensitizing toothpastes are most effective for root sensitivity and can eliminate or decrease sensitivity within two weeks in about 80 percent of cases. Some patients use desensitizing toothpastes all the time, and that is fine, as they contain all the ingredients of regular toothpaste, too.

Desensitizing toothpastes should be applied with a soft or extra-soft brush. Using a quality soft or extra-soft manual or electric toothbrush is important, as these brushes are designed and tested to be non-abrasive. Brushing with a hard or abrasive brush can cause the outer enamel layer to wear away, leaving behind exposed dentin.

As gums recede over time, dentin, which is softer than enamel, is exposed on the root surface and is especially prone to abrasion. Most people actually brush and floss incorrectly, so talk to your dentist or hygienist about proper brushing and flossing techniques.

To sum up, here are some of the things you can do to prevent sensitivity:

  • Use a desensitizing toothpaste.
  • Use a  a soft or ultra-soft brush, either manual or electric.
  • Maintain healthy gums so that less tooth root is exposed.
  • Whitening can cause sensitivity so make sure to use a desensitizing toothpaste when whitening.
  • Grinding or clenching may also erode enamel and leave exposed dentin leading to sensitivity. Your dentist can help you determine if a night guard would be the appropriate treatment for you.

If you are still experiencing sensitivity, your dentist may be able to treat the tooth surface with a desensitizing agent.

While this is not always a permanent solution, it can provide relief if the sensitivity is particularly severe. For some people with a lot of exposed root surface, daily application of a prescription fluoride gel in a custom-made tray can be effective.

This article was sponsored by Gallery 57 Dental.

Gallery 57 Dental
24 W. 57th St., Suite 701
(Between 6th & 5th Avenues)