If you’ve ever experienced tooth sensitivity, then you’re well aware of its symptoms. You bite into some freezing-cold ice cream or knock back some soda, and suddenly you’re wracked with tooth pain.
If you experience this on a rare or frequent basis, you’re most certainly not alone. The Academy of General Dentistry estimates that as many as 40 million U.S. adults experience tooth sensitivity at one point or another.
The primary triggers of tooth sensitivity are consuming acidic, cold, hot, sour, or sweet foods and drinks, breathing cold air, and/or brushing or flossing already sensitive teeth. Most commonly, symptoms manifest as a sudden, sharp, and sometimes deep pain in a tooth that then goes away.
What many people with tooth sensitivity don’t realize is why they experience this pain in the first place. That knowledge is essential if you want to get to the root of your tooth sensitivity and identify a viable solution. So without further ado, let’s take a look at some of the most common causes of tooth sensitivity.
What Causes Tooth Sensitivity?
The root cause of most tooth sensitivity is the loss of a protective covering around a tooth’s dentin, or the material that composes most of the inside of each tooth. Dentin is typically protected by enamel (the outer covering of each tooth), cementium (which protects the tooth root under the gum line), and the gums (which further help protect the root of the tooth), but a number of issues can erode this protective layer. When that happens, heat, cold, acidity, and so on can penetrate into the cells and nerves of the tooth, thereby provoking sensitivity.
A number of factors can contribute to enamel loss, while others may account for additional causes of tooth sensitivity. These include the following:
Brushing too hard
Using a hard-bristled toothbrush and/or brushing aggressively can wear down tooth enamel. Brushing too hard can also provoke gum recession, which exposes the root of the tooth and may provoke sensitivity.
Eating an acidic and/or high-sugar diet
Consuming acidic and/or sugary foods and beverages—such as soda, coffee, tomato sauce, candy, refined carbohydrates, and citrus fruits—can erode tooth enamel, thereby making the dentin more vulnerable.
Using an acidic mouthwash
Just as acidic foods can wear down tooth enamel, so too can acidic mouthwashes. Long-term use of an acidic mouthwash (such as those containing alcohol or other harsh chemicals) can worsen existing sensitivity.
Grinding or clenching your teeth on a regular basis (whether at night or during the day) can gradually wear down tooth enamel, leaving the dentin less protected.
Gum diseases such as gingivitis and periodontal disease typically provoke gum inflammation and/or recession, which can expose the roots of teeth and cause sensitivity.
Frequent use of whitening products
Tooth-whitening products are common culprits of tooth sensitivity. That’s because some of the whitening chemicals added to these products are tough on tooth enamel and can wear it down over time.
A chipped or broken tooth is vulnerable to bacteria, which can travel through the crack into the tooth’s dentin and cause pain or sensitivity.
Recent dental procedures
Routine dental procedures such as professional cleanings, crown placements, fillings, and tooth restorations may provoke tooth sensitivity. The good news is this type of sensitivity is typically temporary and goes away on its own over the course of a few weeks.
No matter the cause of your tooth sensitivity, the first step in treating it is to consult your dentist. They will help you get to the bottom of what’s causing your sensitivity and come up with a treatment plan that works for you.