Why Are Your Teeth So Sensitive?

girl with sensitive teeth

Sensitive teeth can come in all forms. From mild irritation to excruciating pain, the severity of your tooth sensitivity can directly impact your day-to-day activities.

Managing sensitivity and eliminating tooth pain all boils down to figuring out what’s causing your sensitive teeth and if you’re doing anything to make it worse. Some issues can be managed on your own with a DIY sensitivity treatment, while others require professional dental care.

Our teeth are extremely delicate structures. Listening to your body and paying particular attention to when, how, and where the sensitivity occurs can help you potentially solve the problem before you ever call the dentist’s office.

Why do my teeth hurt? Can I treat sensitive teeth on my own? Yes, depending on the cause of your sensitivity. Things like cold sensations can be fixed as easily as swapping out your toothpaste. But sensitivity to something like hot temperatures, sweet foods, or pressure from biting will usually require a trip to the dentist’s office to avoid a painful emergency.[1]

Why Do My Teeth Get  So Sensitive

Most of us probably think about our teeth as solid structures. But just like our bones, teeth are semi-porous. It’s that unique framework that actually adds to their integrity. The enamel is the most dense, protecting the portion of the tooth that’s visible above the gumlines. It tapers off at the neck of the tooth, leaving the less-dense dentin exposed to the surrounding tissues.

Both enamel and dentin are covered in hundreds of tiny micro-pores called “tubules”, which house small nerve endings. If the tubules are large or the dentin (root) is exposed, it can cause someone to have sensitive teeth.

Symptoms Of Sensitive Teeth

Tooth sensitivity presents itself in various ways. Cold sensitivity is probably the most common. It’s more noticeable at certain times than others. For some people it flares up if they’re drinking cool liquids, while others notice it more if they’re taking a deep breath in through their mouth on a cold day.[2]

You can tell that your teeth are sensitive by the sudden jolting sensation that comes once the nerve receptors are triggered. It may feel like a sharp pain coming from one specific tooth, or a generalized area of your mouth.

Other types of tooth sensitivity can cause a dull, lingering tooth pain after the nerves are triggered. Milder tooth sensitivity may not be as painful, but you’ll still notice it. These symptoms may be more infrequent and difficult to pinpoint. They can happen for a variety of reasons but will still cause that sensation that something is “off” inside of your mouth. The only difference is you may not be able to put your finger on the “why” and “what” of your symptoms.

When you feel it, you know. There’s really no sensation like having sensitive teeth. It can’t be ignored, and it will stop you dead in your tracks.

Talk With Your Dentist For The Best Diagnosis

The fastest and most accurate way to figure out why you have sensitive teeth is to talk to your dentist. Chances are they’ll ask you 2-3 questions, take a brief glance in your mouth, and already know what the cause of the tooth sensitivity is. You can eliminate weeks of DIY detective work and home remedy attempts in a short 15-30 minute trip to their office.

Are you due for a checkup anytime soon? This is the perfect time to take to your dentist or hygienist about your tooth sensitivity. Just be sure to share all of your symptoms — including how often they flare up and what your triggers are — so that your dental provider identifies the source correctly.[3] Sometimes completely healthy, intact teeth can be sensitive without anything looking wrong. Communication is key!

It’s best to rule out major dental issues. A professional diagnosis could mean the difference between knowing to switch out your toothpaste or needing something major like a root canal.

Sensitive Teeth Causes

1) Whitening Products

Teeth whitening toothpastes are one of the top offenders when it comes to the cause of sensitive teeth. Your dentist will probably rule this factor out first, before they even take a look at your mouth.

2) Temperature Changes 

Cold temperatures can make even the healthiest of teeth hurt at times. Hot temperatures, not so much. If you have sensitive teeth when eating or drinking something that’s hot, there’s a really good chance that the nerve has something wrong with it.

3) Exposed Root Surfaces

Tooth roots are made out of porous dentin and don’t have dense tooth enamel to cover them. If you have gum recession or brushed so hard that you’ve worn through the enamel and exposed the dentin below it, you’re probably going to experience sensitivity when eating, drinking, or touching those teeth with a toothbrush.

4) Enamel Erosion Or Abrasion 

Acidic diets, aggressive brushing, and untreated heartburn are just a few factors that can physically erode or abrade your enamel. The thinner your tooth enamel is, the more likely you are to have sensitive teeth.

5) Tooth Mobility

Gum disease and bone loss can cause teeth to move whenever pressure is applied. This mobility can pull at the surrounding ligaments, causing the tooth to feel sensitive when you’re eating.

6) Tooth Decay 

Sweet sensitivity is a red flag for tooth decay. If your tooth hurts when you eat or drink anything sweet (even if it’s an artificial sweetener) then you probably have a cavity somewhere.

7) Traumatic Injury

If you’ve ever been hit in the mouth during athletic activity, car accident, or similar issue, it can take years before the tooth starts to die. Dying teeth may be hypersensitive, but you’ll probably notice the color-changes first.

8) Dental Abscess 

Abscessed teeth can cause everything from severe pain and sensitivity to absolutely no symptoms at all. Don’t let the intensity of the discomfort be the determining factor as to whether you seek out care.

How To Treat Tooth Sensitivity 

There are several ways you can treat, manage, and prevent tooth sensitivity.

The first is taking a look at what oral health products you’re using at home. Are any of them meant for whitening purposes? Perhaps a whitening toothpaste? Set these products aside for at least two weeks and switch to a desensitizing formula of toothpaste. If it has an ADA seal on it, that’s even better, because it’s clinically proven to help with tooth sensitivity. Keep in mind that you may need to use it for up to two weeks before you see the full results. And you’ll have to keep using it for it to work.

If you have receding gumlines, your dentist can place a desensitizing agent over the exposed root surfaces. Another option is to discuss soft tissue grafting or dental bonding to physically re-cover those parts of your teeth.

Sensitivity that’s coming from a cracked tooth or cavity will require a restorative treatment, such as a filling or crown. It’s best to treat the damage as early as possible, before the nerve of the tooth becomes involved. Once the structural damage is severe or the tooth has abscessed, you’ll need endodontic therapy (aka a root canal.)

Are there DIY home treatments for tooth sensitivity? Yes, but most of them should only be used on a temporary basis. Like between when your symptoms start and finally having the issue treated by your dentist.

Sensitivity To Hot And Cold Temperatures

Temperature sensitivity can catch you off guard and significantly impact your diet. Since we frequently reach for that hot cup of coffee, cool glass of iced tea, and expect our dinner to be warm, the sudden temperature change in our mouth can hurt sensitive teeth.[4]

Cold and hot sensitivity mean different things. Cold sensitivity is something that most of us will experience at least every now and then. Especially if we’re biting straight down into something really cold or breathing in through our mouth on an arctic winter’s day. Each of our teeth have nerve tissues in them, so when they go from a warm body temperature to something super-cold, there’s a good chance you’re going to notice. Usually, the sensation is generalized across several teeth at a time. Whitening products can make it even worse.

Heat sensitivity is a completely different issue. You never want to have a tooth that’s sensitive to hot temperatures. Any time you notice a reaction to heat, it will probably be localized to a specific tooth. Even if you can’t tell which tooth it is, you’ll probably be able to tell what part of your mouth the pain is coming from. When a tooth is hypersensitive to heat, it almost always means that there’s some type of nerve damage. Endodontic therapy (root canal treatment) is typically the next step.

Why Do My Teeth Hurt Suddenly?

Tooth sensitivity is one of those weird conditions that can be tied to tooth damage or develop over a period of time, with symptoms seeming to come on all of a sudden.

Sudden sensitivity may be due to an old filling coming loose, a crack in your tooth that started to widen, or your gums receding from some over-zealous toothbrushing. Once one of those things happens, the nerve tissues in your teeth sort of go into shock. The sensation may not have been there the day before, but suddenly it’s well pronounced. That’s why we in dentistry don’t generally tell you to base the severity of your oral health on the presence (and level) of pain. Tooth pain or sensitivity may be one of the last symptoms of an already-developing dental concern.

When To See A Dentist

How can you know when you need to put the DIY sensitive teeth treatments away and actually talk to your dentist? If you’re experiencing any of the following:

Give yourself about a two-week window if the sensitivity is minor or doesn’t respond to a desensitizing toothpaste. If symptoms are severe, get worse, or they’re directly linked to sweets or heat, you need to go ahead and see a dentist without any further delay.[5]

Overcoming Sensitive Teeth

Sensitive teeth occur for a variety of reasons. Some are as simple as using whitening toothpastes while others are because of an abscessed nerve. It’s important to see your dentist regularly for accurate diagnosis and finding the best, fastest path toward treating your tooth sensitivity. Although DIY options are available, some forms of tooth pain can only be treated through therapeutic and restorative dental treatments. It’s best to seek out a professional opinion before things get worse (and more expensive to treat.)