Why so sensitive? An oral care expert breaks it down.

By Maggie Seaver
October 22, 2020
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If you’ve experienced tooth sensitivity, you’re well acquainted with the feelings of sharp pain or achy discomfort when you try to do some of the simplest things, like sip on cold or hot drinks, floss, or even breathe in cold air. The nagging symptoms of sensitive teeth can range from mildly unpleasant to straight-up debilitating, and since this dental issue is often caused or exacerbated by very common lifestyle choices, it’s a pretty common ailment. “Most people—87 percent—are at risk for [tooth sensitivity] at some point in their life,” says Monica Biga, an oral care expert with GSK Consumer Healthcare, Oral Health. So at least you’re not the only one, right?

Biga is here to break down the most likely, everyday causes of tooth sensitivity, what to avoid so it doesn’t get worse, and the best options for fixing it.

“Sensitive teeth, or dentin hypersensitivity, can develop over time as a result of enamel wear and/or receding gums, and can occur when the softer, inner part of the tooth, called ‘dentin,’ becomes exposed,” Biga explains. “Once the dentin is exposed, certain triggers (such as cold or hot temperatures) can stimulate the nerves, resulting in a short, sharp jolt of tooth sensitivity.”

Basically when the enamel wears down, the softer, more sensitive part of your teeth (including super-sensitive nerves) loses its protective armor.  

Not all tooth sensitivity is dentin hypersensitivity, though, and Biga warns it “can be caused by other conditions, including a cavity, broken tooth, or gum disease.” If you’re worried that tooth pain is something other than enamel breaking down, definitely head in to see your dentist.

RELATED: How to Floss Your Teeth Properly Every Time

If dentin hypersensitivity is the result of the dentin becoming exposed, what actually causes that exposure? A few external factors and habits could be at the root of it. Keep in mind that genetics can play a role. Some people just naturally have thinner enamel, making them more susceptible to tooth sensitivity.

1. Clenching or Grinding Your Teeth

Are you a tooth grinder or jaw clencher? Do you use your teeth to open things? These are obvious culprits. “Parafunctional habits, including grinding or clenching of the teeth, biting your nails, and opening packaging with your teeth, cause tooth wear and gum recession,” Biga says. 

2. Acidic Foods and Drinks

What you eat and drink can play a major role in tooth sensitivity. The worst offenders are highly acidic bites and beverages, since acid naturally erodes the outer layer of our enamel. If you're worried about or dealing with tooth sensitivity, avoid acid-forward picks like citrus fruits and juices, wine, vinegars and salad dressing, sports drinks, pickles, and even carbonated drinks and tonic water. (For a comprehensive list, check out more food and drinks that cause acid erosion from the experts at Pronamel).

“When you’re constantly sipping on something like soda, you’re bathing your teeth in that liquid, which is often acidic,” Biga says. “The same goes for eating snacks that are high in sugar like cookies, chips, and pastries. But even healthy foods like citric fruits can have damaging effects over time—but that’s not to say you can’t enjoy these. Protect your teeth by sipping water throughout the day, since plain water and saliva help balance any acids in your mouth.”

RELATED: 6 Trending Foods That Are Surprisingly Bad for Your Teeth

3. Certain Tooth Whitening Products

While professional tooth whitening systems aren’t permanently harmful to the enamel, tooth whitening can trigger temporary tooth sensitivity. “Whitening or bleaching the tooth causes the pores in your enamel to open up and temporarily expose the dentin,” Biga says. “When this happens, teeth can be very sensitive for a short time after the whitening process.” 

Be careful with whitening toothpastes, too, which can be very abrasive and cause wear on the enamel. She recommends avoiding whitening products with hydrogen peroxide or bleaching agents. And if you experience sensitivity with the product you’re using, stop and check in with your dentist for better whitening options.

RELATED: The Best At-Home Whitening Treatments for Sensitive Teeth 

4. Brushing Too Hard or Too Often

According to Biga, going overboard on brushing can also lead to gum recession and enamel wear, which, over time, can expose the dentin. And in general, proper oral hygiene is a smart preventive measure against tooth sensitivity. What’s the Goldilocks rule for brushing time and techniques? Brush for two minutes, twice a day (use your phone to time it!)—be thorough, but gentle, careful not to aggravate the gums or teeth. “I also highly recommend using an electric toothbrush instead of a manual toothbrush, and encourage daily flossing as part of a good oral care routine,” Biga adds.  

RELATED:  You're Probably Brushing Your Teeth Wrong—Try These Dentist-Approved Tips for a Better Smile

There's some bad news and some good news. Bad news, you're not really able to growth back the lost or worn-away tooth structure, Biga says. But what you can do is protect what you have left by adopting great oral hygeine habits, going easy on sugar and acid, and picking up oral care products whose ingredients help reduce sensitivity and remineralize your teeth.  

If you need more help going in the right direction for your pearly whites, don't hesitate to ask your dentist. In the meantime, it's smart to start using a sensitivity toothpaste to brush twice a day, which can help mitigate all those painful symptoms. Biga is obviously partial to Sensodyne, a brand that many dentists recommend to patients with tooth sensitivity concerns. 

Hopefully with these tips in your arsenal you'll once again be able to bite into an ice cream sandwich, pain-free—the dream!