Sensitive Teeth Are an Actual Pain—and These 4 Habits Can Make It Worse

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

If you’ve experienced tooth sensitivity, you know the 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.

Since this dental issue is often caused or exacerbated by very common lifestyle choices, it’s a pretty typical ailment. According to experts at the University of Utah, one in eight Americans suffer from teeth sensitivity. So at least you’re not the only one, right?

Monica Biga, an oral care expert with GSK Consumer Healthcare, Oral Health is here to break down the most likely, everyday causes of tooth sensitivity and what to avoid, so it doesn’t get worse. Plus, the best options for fixing it.

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Why Teeth Get Sensitive

“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. Biga warns that 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.

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How Exposure Causes Pain

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, vinegar, 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. 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.”

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.

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.

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Ways to Treat and Prevent Pain

There's some bad news and some good news. Bad news, you're not really able to grow back the lost or worn-away tooth structure, Biga says. But you can protect what you have left by adopting great oral hygiene 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 for your pearly whites, 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 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!

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  2. Alharby A, Alzayer H, Almahlawi A, Alrashidi Y, Azhar S, Sheikho M, Alandijani A, Aljohani A, Obied M. Parafunctional Behaviors and Its Effect on Dental Bridges. J Clin Med Res. 2018 Feb;10(2):73-76. doi: 10.14740/jocmr3304w.

  3. Langenbach F, Naujoks C, Smeets R, Berr K, Depprich R, Kübler N, Handschel J. Scaffold-free microtissues: differences from monolayer cultures and their potential in bone tissue engineering. Clin Oral Investig. 2013 Jan;17(1):9-17. doi: 10.1007/s00784-012-0763-8.

  4. Epple M, Meyer F, Enax J. A Critical Review of Modern Concepts for Teeth Whitening. Dent J (Basel). 2019 Aug 1;7(3):79. doi: 10.3390/dj7030079.

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