If you’re struggling with sensitive teeth, just the thought of going out for ice cream or sipping hot coffee can fill you with dread. The sharp, tingling sensations you get when sensitivity strikes make it feel like there’s pain shooting right through your nerves. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Here’s what experts say are the top causes of sensitive teeth, and what actions you can take to prevent future tooth damage and discomfort. First on your to-do list—swap those stiff bristles for a more gentle electric toothbrush (our guide to the best electric toothbrush might come in handy here).
Why do we get sensitive teeth?
Your teeth are filled with tiny nerve endings. According to the American Dental Association (opens in new tab), these can be found right in the middle, in a soft space called the pulp chamber where the blood vessels and nerves live.
The pulp chamber is surrounded by a hard tissue called dentin. This serves as the next line of defense beneath the hard enamel you strive to keep clean and bright. The root of your tooth that’s covered by the gums has a different hard outer layer called cementum. According to Dr Casey Lau, a chief dental officer at Elims, “When you have tooth sensitivity, usually it’s not an exposed nerve unless you have a broken tooth or a huge cavity. Usually, it’s the exposure of the dentin or cementum.”
When either part of the tooth gets exposed to something irritating—whether it’s hot, cold, sweet, acidic, or physically harsh—he says “messages are sent to the nerve through dentinal tubules” leaving you in a sorry state.
Tooth sensitivity—causes and solutions
The best course of action for sensitive teeth is to speak with your dentist. But, while you wait for your appointment, learn about the most common causes and solutions for how to help sensitive teeth in each situation.
1. Wear from aggressive brushing
“Two of the most common causes of sensitivity are brushing your teeth too hard or using a harsh toothbrush,” says Dr Mahnaz Rashti, periodontist and cosmetic surgeon. Though, of course, it's important to brush twice a day, toothbrushes can be harsh on our gums and teeth if not handled gently. See our feature on how to brush teeth (and also how to floss your teeth properly) properly for a full guide.
The solution: use a soft electric toothbrush with a pressure sensor
“We always want to encourage patients not to brush so hard and adopt the correct brushing technique,” explains Dr Saul Konviser of Montagu Dental. “If using an electric toothbrush, let the brush do the work for you and don’t do additional scrubbing.” Choose one with a pressure sensor that will alert you if you’re getting carried away.
You could also try opting for products that remineralize your teeth. Instead of your run-of-the-mill toothpaste, Dr Lau suggests trying “calcium phosphate products derived from milk” and prescription-grade “fluoride-containing toothpaste to strengthen the teeth.” His oral health care company uses nano-hydroxyapatite to treat sensitivity. ”Nano-hydroxyapatite is a mineral that closely mimics the hydroxyapatite that already exists in your teeth. It’s safe to swallow and has been clinically proven to remineralize your teeth at the right formulations.” Dr. Lau suggests this as an option for people with dairy sensitivities and as an alternative to fluoride toothpaste.
2. Exposure from gum recession
If you have receding gums, part of your cementum will become exposed. As Dr. Konviser puts it, “It’s like going out in winter without a jacket—suddenly you will be very exposed and sensitive. Gum recession is similar in that the gums provide insulation to the teeth. Without them, the teeth are more exposed to the elements.”
Solution: try toothpaste for sensitive teeth
Gels and toothpaste products targeted at people with sensitive teeth work by “putting up a protective chemical barrier over the exposed areas of the tooth,” Dr. Konviser explains. “Many of the over-the-counter toothpaste is very effective, yet sometimes patients require more and so stronger, prescription-only gels and pastes can be issued.”
If teeth are sensitive, be wary of using 'whitening' products at home, as they can often have a detrimental effect on tooth enamel. Take a look at our guide on how to whiten teeth at home, safely,
In more extreme cases, Dr Rashti advises “getting soft tissue grafts for gum recession”. Talk to your dentist about how gum grafts work, and what to expect in terms of treatment time and cost.
3. Damage from sweet or acidic food and drink
“Acidic foods can demineralize and damage your teeth,” Dr Lau says. “Your teeth are basically made up of a mineral called hydroxyapatite. When it is worn away through normal wear and tear, or it is exposed to acids and eroded away, then you expose the dentin.” Using mouthwash or a technique like oil pulling between meals can also help keep your teeth and gums cleaner, not to mention banishing unpleasant halitosis.
A sugary diet can also contribute to this breakdown. “When you have sweets, what happens is you feed the bacteria in your mouth and it releases acids that cause further damage,“ he says.
Solution: adapt your diet
Cutting your soda-sipping habit or daily dessert routine can make a big difference in keeping your teeth healthy. Stay away from foods high in artificial sugars and sweeteners, such as:
- Fizzy drinks
- Baked goods
If you do consume sugary foods, make sure you brush straight after. No matter how much acid and sugar is in your diet “good home care is a must,” says Dr Lau. “Regular brushing and flossing will keep bacterial loads down and prevent decay and acid released by the bacteria.” That means brushing twice a day and flossing daily.
4. Fractures from teeth grinding
Bruxism, or teeth grinding at night, “causes micro-cracks in the teeth or fillings that may be worn around the edges,” says Dr Konviser. These tiny fractures can expose the inner layers of your teeth to factors that cause sudden sensitivity.
Solution: sleep with a night guard
“Wearing a night guard can help protect the teeth and prevent further wear and risks of fractures that can result in sensitivity,” suggests Dr Konviser.
When to see a dentist
“If patients experience sensitivity, I would recommend they speak to their dentist as there are many conservative and non-invasive techniques that we can use to help manage the problem,” he concludes.
“Often, a tooth that has had a very large filling can also become sensitive out of the blue and this is often due to the nerve beginning to ‘die off,’” adds Dr Konviser.
“This type of sensitivity can often lead to new fillings or, at worst, root canal treatments if the nerve is so inflamed or irritated,” he notes. Although you may be terrified of this type of treatment, it’s important to be open and honest with your dentist about your symptoms and concerns.
Ciara was the former digital health editor at womanandhome.com, covering all things health & wellbeing from fitness to sleep to relationships. She's always on the lookout for new health trends, innovative fitness gadgets and must-read wellness books.
Originally from Ireland, Ciara moved to London to study journalism. After graduation, Ciara started her career at Goodhousekeeping.com. Ciara qualified as a meditation teacher with the British School of Meditation in 2020, and outside of her day-to-day now runs her own meditation school called Finding Quiet. She is all about bettering that mind-body connection but believes wellness looks different to everyone.