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Tooth sensitivity or dentin hypersensitivity is characterized by pain or discomfort in the teeth due to loss of enamel or gum recession, which exposes the nerve pathways that lie underneath.
This problem can affect one or more teeth and varies in severity. It can range from a mild twinge to a sharp, intense pain, which radiates from the teeth into the gums and underlying bone.
This kind of dental discomfort is usually brought on by certain stimuli, such as consuming something hot, cold, hard, sweet, or acidic.
In some cases, the pain may be triggered by something as simple as breathing through your mouth. Sensitive teeth are especially vulnerable to extreme temperatures, and so you may experience a burst of pain after inhaling cold air through your mouth.
The duration of the pain or discomfort triggered by tooth sensitivity indicates how serious it is. The symptoms may last only a few seconds or minutes after exposure to the stimuli or persist for several hours, depending upon the extent of dental damage.
Tooth sensitivity can be an early sign of a more grievous periodontal issue. Thus, people who experience prolonged or frequent pain on account of their sensitive teeth should seek prompt medical help from a dentist to address the problem.
Go for a dental checkup as soon as you notice any new signs of tooth sensitivity. The dentist will thoroughly examine your oral cavity to look for signs of dental decay or cracks that may require treatment.
What causes tooth sensitivity?
The teeth are composed of three distinct layers.
The outermost layer is the enamel. The middle part is the dentin, which contains a network of fluid-filled tubules that communicate with the pulp. The innermost portion is the pulp, which contains both the nerve and blood supply for the tooth. (1)
Stimulation of the fluid in the dentinal tubules via temperature (hot or cold), chemical (sweets, acid), or mechanical (chewing) causes the fluid to move, stimulating nerve receptors in the pulp and resulting in pain response.
For the fluid in these tubules to be stimulated, the dentin layer needs to be exposed to the oral environment.
One common source of dentinal exposure is the gingival recession. Various factors contribute to a recession, including aggressive tooth brushing, grinding, and age.
Those who have dentinal exposure may experience a sudden jolt of pain from very hot or cold foods. Short-term temperature discomfort with no evidence of cavitation can be an indication of sensitivity.
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What is a desensitizing toothpaste?
Toothpaste, specifically designed with a desensitizing component can be a temporary solution to your dental discomfort.
These toothpastes are formulated with certain compounds that help reduce nerve stimulation in the teeth. They do so by blocking the transmission of the sensory stimuli from the enamel to the nerve roots located in the porous dentin tissue.
Because the signals are intercepted midway, they fail to reach the brain and register a response in the form of tooth sensitivity. So even when your nerves are exposed to the heat or cold, the stimuli will not trigger your tooth sensitivity.
A desensitizing toothpaste basically works as a mild anesthetic that needs repeated applications before it can deliver the desired relief. You are likely to experience reduced sensitivity only after using the toothpaste regularly as part of your oral routine for several days.
But bear in mind that this oral hygiene tool only numbs the pain without fixing the underlying problem, so the sensitivity is likely to return once you stop using the toothpaste.
Potassium nitrate and fluoride are two ingredients currently added to desensitizing toothpaste that has shown to be effective in the reduction of sensitivity. (1)
What are the types of desensitizing toothpaste?
There are mainly two kinds of desensitizing toothpaste available in stores:
- Potassium-containing toothpaste that induces a depolarizing effect on nerve conduction.
- Toothpaste containing compounds such as stannous fluoride, calcium sodium phosphosilicate, strontium chloride, and arginine, which form a protective cover over the exposed dentine tubules that blocks the external stimulation to produce a desensitizing effect. (2)
Are desensitizing toothpastes good for children?
If you have children under the age of 12, consult their dentist first before letting them use a desensitizing toothpaste as the discomfort could be from a serious issue. (3)
Young children who accidentally swallow toothpaste can develop fluorosis, a malformation of the enamel caused by excessive fluoride consumption.
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is another additive used in toothpaste to create foam, which can cause gum irritation. If you are concerned about the possible side effects of SLS, look for a desensitizing toothpaste that is SLS-free.
With all oral health products, the directions should be read and followed carefully. There are stronger formulations of desensitizing toothpaste available by prescription only.
If, after 4 weeks, the pain in your tooth persists, consult a dentist for further guidance. Long-term tooth sensitivity may require more advanced treatment.
How to choose a desensitizing toothpaste?
As many toothpaste options are available both online and in retail locations, purchasing the right product can be an overwhelming task. Manufacturers provide the product benefits and indications on their website.
Each person has their own needs, and finding the perfect desensitizing toothpaste is a personal decision.
The safest recommendation is to create a treatment plan with a dentist to determine which desensitizing toothpaste (if any) is the solution to your tooth discomfort.
Is desensitizing toothpaste a long-term solution to sensitive teeth?
Desensitizing toothpaste can help alleviate tooth sensitivity to some extent without causing any adverse side effects, but they cannot provide a permanent solution to the problem.
The relief provided by these toothpastes is a result of their anesthetic effect, which lasts only for a short period. In any case, you must keep up with your regular dental checkups even if your condition improves after using this intervention.
This is because the desensitizing effect of the toothpaste does not provide a real cure to the underlying dental problem, such as cavities or gingival recession. All it does is numb the nerve endings in your teeth for a temporary period so that you feel less pain.
Even though this toothpaste can make your teeth more resistant to pain and temperature changes, its therapeutic effect wears off once you discontinue its use.
Unless your sensitivity is fairly mild and occasional, you will need more advanced treatments for long-term relief. These treatments warrant the professional expertise of a dentist, hence the need for regular dental checkups.
Moreover, a timely examination of your oral cavity can also help your dentist identify any new signs of dental decay or other problems that may aggravate your tooth sensitivity.
If you notice any new type of sensitivity or an increase in your dental discomfort despite the prescribed treatment and care, visit your dentist immediately for a thorough evaluation.
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What are the alternative treatment options for sensitive teeth?
While desensitizing toothpaste can make great value addition to your oral hygiene kit, they only provide temporary relief from tooth sensitivity and must be used in conjunction with other treatments.
Besides, the numbing effect of these toothpastes may not be enough to address extreme tooth sensitivity.
Keeping that in mind, you can opt for clinical interventions that can help embolden the therapeutic effect of desensitizing toothpaste. These interventions include:
- Application of protective dental agents: Fluoride is one of the most widely used protective agents in dental products for its ability to rebuild or remineralize tooth enamel and prevent tooth decay.
There is an in-office treatment for dentin hypersensitivity that involves the application of a fluoride-based gel to the teeth to reverse or repair enamel erosion.
The breakdown of the tooth enamel is one of the major causes of sensitive teeth, which is why this clinical procedure can help provide you relief. The dentist may even paint a protective varnish on your teeth or administer a professional mouth rinse to wash over your teeth.
All these methods serve the same purpose: to help rebuild your enamel, shield your teeth from further damage, and cover your sensitive teeth to block the transmission of sensations.
However, you may need multiple reapplications for these treatments to bear fruit. After the initial treatment, you will be administered the same treatment at follow-up sessions scheduled at regular intervals, preferably 1 or 2 weeks apart. (4)
- A crown, inlay, or bonding: The dentist may install a crown, inlay, or bonding over your teeth to correct a flaw or cover up dental decay in order to reduce sensitivity.
- Surgical gum graft: In a gingival recession, the lost tissue exposes the root of the tooth and renders it extremely sensitive. In this case, the dentist may attach a surgical gum graft over the exposed tooth root to keep it covered and thereby reduce sensitivity.
- Root canal: Root canal is an invasive treatment that aims to remove the severely decayed dental pulp and deeply clean the insides of the affected tooth. Dentists usually recommend this procedure when all other measures fail to relieve severe and persistent tooth sensitivity.
People with sensitive teeth need to use the right kind of toothpaste to minimize their dental discomfort. Tooth sensitivity is usually the result of enamel loss and gum recession, which exposes your dental nerves to external stimuli.
Thus, when the affected tooth comes in contact with extreme temperature or hard surfaces, the unprotected nerves become irritated, triggering pain. The sensitivity may last for a short period or several hours, depending upon the extent of the underlying tooth damage.
A desensitizing toothpaste might help numb the nerve endings in your teeth for a temporary period and make you feel less pain. But to optimize its anesthetic effect, you must use the toothpaste regularly or as advised by the dentist. However, you should not expect permanent relief from tooth sensitivity by this single intervention alone.
Desensitizing toothpastes are complementary tools that will provide any real relief only when used along with other dentist-prescribed treatments. You also have to incorporate this intervention in a wholesome oral hygiene routine.