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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 kind of dental discomfort is usually brought on by certain stimuli, such as consuming something hot, cold, hard, sweet, or acidic or something as simple as breathing.
The duration of the pain or discomfort triggered by tooth sensitivity indicates how serious it is. Tooth sensitivity can be an early sign of a more grievous periodontal issue. Go for a dental checkup as soon as you notice any new signs of tooth sensitivity.
Major Causes of Tooth Sensitivity
The teeth are composed of three distinct layers. The outermost layer is the enamel. The middle part is the dentin, and 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, activating 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.
What Is 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.
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 have been shown to be effective in the reduction of sensitivity. (1)
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)
Choosing the Right 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.
Clinical Treatment for Sensitive Teeth
While desensitizing toothpaste can be a great value addition to your oral hygiene kit, it only provides temporary relief from tooth sensitivity and must be used in conjunction with other treatments.
Most of these treatments are performed clinically by a dentist, and regular follow-ups are warranted to track your progress and identify any new signs of dental decay or other complications.
Here are some of the most commonly used clinical interventions for tooth sensitivity:
1. Application of protective dental agents
This is an in-office treatment that involves multiple applications of a fluoride-based gel over the teeth to reverse or repair enamel erosion, which is one of the major causes of dentin hypersensitivity.
The entire procedure is completed over several follow-up sessions, scheduled 1–2 weeks apart. 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 remineralize or rebuild your enamel, shield your teeth from further damage, and cover your sensitive teeth to block the transmission of sensations. (3)
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. Root canal
A 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.
Is Desensitizing Toothpaste a Long-Term Solution for Sensitive Teeth?
Desensitizing toothpaste can help alleviate tooth sensitivity for a short period without causing any adverse side effects, but it does not address the root cause of the problem, such as cavities or gingival recession.
All it does is temporarily numb the nerve endings in your teeth so that you feel less pain, but this anesthetic effect diminishes after a while and wears off completely once you discontinue its use.
In any case, you must keep up with your regular dental checkups even if your condition improves after using this intervention. Unless your sensitivity is fairly mild and occasional, you will need more advanced treatments for long-term relief.
Is Desensitizing Toothpaste Good for Children?
If you have children under the age of 12, consult their dentist first before letting them use desensitizing toothpaste as the discomfort could be from a serious issue. (4)
Young children who accidentally swallow toothpaste can develop fluorosis, a malformation of the enamel caused by excessive fluoride consumption. Overingestion of fluoride can also lead to nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and a sore or burning mouth and tongue.
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 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.
People with sensitive teeth need to use the right kind of toothpaste to minimize their dental discomfort. 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.
Desensitizing toothpaste is a complementary tool that will provide real relief only when used along with other dentist-prescribed treatments and as part of an overall wholesome oral hygiene routine.
If you notice any new type of sensitivity or increase in your dental discomfort despite the prescribed treatment and care, visit your dentist immediately for a thorough evaluation.