Many people experience some degree of tooth sensitivity. A study published in the March 2013 issue of The Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA) revealed that 1 in 8 people have sensitive teeth. But many don’t discuss the condition with their dentist.
If you have sensitive teeth, you may think that the discomfort you feel when you eat or drink cold, hot, sweet, spicy, or sour foods or beverages is normal, and that the solution is simply to avoid trigger foods and drinks.
Depending on the cause of your tooth sensitivity, avoiding these triggers may help alleviate your symptoms. But tooth sensitivity can also be a sign of a serious underlying problem, which is why it’s important to discuss any tooth sensitivity — as well as any other concerns — with your dentist.
When to Schedule a Dental Visit
Your teeth are meant to last a lifetime. “And they will — if you take care of them,” says Kimberly Harms, DDS, a spokesperson for the American Dental Association (ADA), based in Minneapolis. But teeth are subject to damage over time. Enamel can wear down, making teeth more sensitive. Gums can recede, exposing the root and nerves and therefore increasing sensitivity. Teeth can develop cracks, cavities, and abscesses. And you might experience other dental problems.
Aside from your regular checkups, it’s important to see your dentist immediately if you suddenly experience an unusual level of tooth sensitivity, or if one particular tooth or area becomes especially sensitive. “Don’t wait for your next scheduled appointment,” says Dr. Harms.
If you have a cracked tooth, for example, bacteria can grow in the tooth and lead to an infection, she explains. The crack could also get worse. “It’s really important to take care of any dental issues as quickly as possible,” Harms says. “The longer you wait, the worse a problem can get.”
Experts at the Academy of General Dentistry also recommend that you get a dental evaluation if a tooth is highly sensitive for more than a few days and reacts strongly to hot and cold temperatures.
What to Expect During Your Visit
To rule out any underlying causes of tooth sensitivity, like a cracked tooth, a cavity, an abscess, or nerve damage, your dentist may ask questions such as:
How often do your teeth feel sensitive?
Do all of your teeth experience sensitivity, or is it just a single tooth?
How long does the sensitivity last — does it linger for a while or go away immediately?
Does the sensitivity occur only with really cold foods, like ice cream, or hot foods, like soup?
Does it occur when you’re consuming acidic food or drinks?
Do you have pain when you bite into something or chew?
Depending on your answers to these questions, your dentist may recommend changing your regular toothpaste to one that’s specially formulated for sensitive teeth; fluoride treatments to help strengthen your teeth and manage your symptoms; a mouth guard to protect your teeth from the effects of grinding or clenching; or a crown, inlay, or bonding. A surgical procedure, like a root canal or gum surgery, is sometimes necessary.
Talking to your dentist about your symptoms can help you find the best course of treatment for sensitive teeth.