Taking the pain out of sensitive teeth

Hygienist at Bupa UK
29 November 2016

If you wince at the sight of an ice cream or always decline that ice in your favourite drink, you’re not alone. 

Tooth sensitivity is a common complaint, affecting up to three out of 10 people.. It gives varying degrees of pain; from a mild twinge in one tooth, to severe pain that lasts for several hours. It’s usually just an annoyance but it can alter your daily lifestyle. In some cases it can be a sign that there are more serious underlying problems with your teeth.

Talk to your dentist, dental therapist or hygienist who can help you find the treatment that works for you.

Woman holds her face in pain with toothache

Why do teeth become sensitive?

Tooth sensitivity is mostly due to exposure of dentine, the dense tissue that forms the bulk of the tooth. It’s full of tiny fluid-filled tubes. When the enamel of the tooth is removed or the part of your tooth below the gum line (the root) is revealed, this exposes the dentine. The most widely accepted theory about sensitivity is that when the fluid-filled tubes in the root are exposed to cold, the fluid moves. This is thought to stimulate the nerves inside your teeth, causing sharp ‘wincing’ pain. You may also have pain when the root is exposed to air, heat or touch.

Recession of the gum exposing the root surface of the tooth can be caused by excessive brushing with a hard bristled toothbrush. This was recently shown to be the cause of most cases of tooth sensitivity. Some gum recession also happens with age . And much is due to the damaging effects of gum disease (mainly caused by poor oral hygiene).

Your dentine may also be exposed by your tooth losing some of its protective enamel layer. This may be through wear and tear, or by the action of acids that erode it.

What can I do?

You can help prevent sensitive teeth from occurring by looking after your teeth and gums with gentle twice daily brushing using fluoride toothpaste. Use small circular movements rather than brushing from side the side. It’s best not to brush immediately after eating as some foods and drinks can soften your tooth’s enamel. It’s also important not to have too many acidic drinks. These include fizzy drinks, fruit juices and wine; all of which can erode the enamel on your teeth. Try and keep these to mealtimes only.

If you have sensitive teeth, there are many different brands of toothpaste which you can buy to help ease your symptoms. Look out for ones that say they help with sensitivity. These can take anything from a few days to a few weeks to work. If you’ve tried these with no improvement see your dental care professionals who can advise you on ways to improve how well they work. They may even provide you with a stronger prescription-only paste.

How can my dental care team help?

Your dental professional will ask about your symptoms, consider risk factors and examine your teeth to find what might be causing the sensitivity. Together you can agree an individual treatment plan.

Non-invasive options are always the first line. They may recommend treating your teeth with special ‘desensitising’ products like the toothpastes mentioned above. Or they may recommend others such as fluoride gels, rinses or varnishes which they can apply. These build up protection for the exposed roots and can be highly effective.

If these treatments don’t help with your symptoms, they may suggest sealing or filling around the neck of the tooth to cover the exposed area. In some very serious cases they may recommend that the tooth is root-filled. This removes the nerve at the centre of the tooth.

Tooth sensitivity is not something you need to put up with and can, in the majority of cases, be treated easily. Ask your dental care team to explain the different options available, and how they might help you.

Talie Christy
Hygienist at Bupa UK

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