Understanding Sensitive Teeth and When To Visit the Dentist

Understanding Sensitive Teeth and when to visit the dentist - Boston Dental

Do you all of a sudden get a shock of pain in your teeth? You may be dealing with tooth sensitivity, which can be annoying, distracting and painful. Knowing the common causes of tooth sensitivity will help you troubleshoot the problem, and then you can determine if it’s time for a visit to your dentist in Boston.

Tooth Sensitivity Defined

According to the American Academy of Endodontists, tooth sensitivity is the sensation that’s caused by either heat or cold being exposed to the dentin, which is the layer of your tooth that’s beneath the hard, white enamel you see. When the dentin loses the covering that normally protects it, the nerves in your teeth become more sensitive to hot and cold sensations. Tooth sensitivity is usually brief and passes quickly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not difficult to deal with as the person affected.

Tooth sensitivity is somewhat common, and dentists are used to seeing patients who are dealing with it. Though a person of any age can experience tooth sensitivity, it’s most common among people between the ages of 18 and 44 who have receding gums.

Common Causes of Tooth Sensitivity

There are all sorts of things that can contribute to tooth sensitivity, and not every one of them is cause for alarm. We’ll lay out the different reasons why you may be experiencing tooth sensitivity. Knowing the common factors may help you pinpoint what’s causing your discomfort.

However, it’s important to note that some causes of tooth sensitivity require a dentist to diagnose, so you don’t necessarily want to depend on your own troubleshooting alone. The goal of troubleshooting at home is to pinpoint exactly when and where the sensitivity occurs so that you can give your dentist the information he needs to determine the issue.

Here are the most common causes of tooth sensitivity:


While brushing your teeth regularly is a key factor of good hygiene, harsh brushing may be doing damage. You should never be abrasive with your teeth. Choose a medium or soft bristled toothbrush and try to not brush your teeth harshly.


Even a tiny amount of tooth decay, like a minor cavity, can expose some of your tooth’s dentin and lead to sensitivity. You may want to talk to your dentist about getting a filling or a crown to repair the tooth. It’s also possible that you have a bit of decay around one of your fillings, which can happen as your fillings weaken over time. When fillings get weak, they can break or leak around the sides, which makes it easy for bacteria to build up.

Dental Work

Following a dental procedure, it’s normal to have some tooth sensitivity for a short period of time. After about four weeks, you should see an improvement. However, if the tooth sensitivity continues, you’ll want to visit your dentist to find out if something else is causing it.


Certain foods are more damaging and harsh on the teeth, including acidic foods and hard foods. Citrus fruits, which are full of acid, along with juice and sports drinks can be a cause of tooth sensitivity.

Digestive Issues

Acid reflux can wear the tooth’s surface away, which leaves the dentin more exposed and your teeth more sensitive. Frequent vomiting can also have the same effect, and certain eating disorders, like bulimia, can have a side effect of tooth sensitivity. If you’re facing a digestive or eating disorder, you’ll want to make an appointment for medical, and possibly therapeutic, treatment.

Gum Issues

There are a number of gum-related issues that could be contributing to your tooth sensitivity, including gum receding (which is a normal part of aging), harsh brushing that leads to abrasion of the gums, dental procedures or prep, over-flossing, and gum disease.


If you have a habit of chewing ice, you may be making your teeth more sensitive. Ice is hard and can crack your tooth enamel or grind away at it as you chew it, which can make your teeth more sensitive.


Brushing and flossing don’t just remove bits of food from your mouth after a meal – they also help get rid of plaque. If you have a buildup of plaque on your teeth, it could wear away at the enamel, which increases tooth sensitivity. Better dental hygiene and routine cleanings at your dentist (every six months) can help with the problem. In the beginning, your dentist may recommend more frequent cleanings to ensure plaque doesn’t begin building up again.


While pregnancy itself won’t lead to tooth sensitivity, it can cause hormonal changes that affect the gums, which could cause some discomfort or pain in the mouth, including tooth sensitivity.

Sinus Infection

Sinus infections can cause tooth sensitivity as your sinuses swell, which causes inflammation and pressure around your teeth. If you notice that your head and teeth hurt even more as you lean over and put your head down, it’s possible that a sinus infection is to blame.

Split or Cracked Tooth

If you notice that your teeth are sensitive when you bite down, instead of, for example, when you drink something that’s hot or cold, it could be caused by a split tooth. If you think this is what you have, you’ll want to get to a dentist or oral surgeon immediately. A cracked tooth can lead to the growth of bacteria, which can cause an infection. The crack may also get worse, which can cause more pain and require a more serious procedure to fix.


Stress can cause so many issues in the body that you wouldn’t assume were stress-related, including tooth sensitivity. Stress can cause tooth damage because some people will grind their teeth when stressed, which eats away at the enamel. This type of grinding is referred to as bruxism, and it can happen at night while you’re sleeping, which means you may not even realize it’s happening. Aside from damage to the enamel and tooth sensitivity, teeth grinding can also contribute to hearing issues and headaches.


Cold weather can lead to tooth sensitivity for some people, as cold air passing over the teeth can cause discomfort. If you visit a dentist, he may test your tooth sensitivity by blowing some air on your teeth and asking if it’s uncomfortable.


If you’ve recently had a tooth whitening treatment, tooth sensitivity is a common and temporary side effect. However, if you notice that the sensitivity doesn’t go away after a period of time, it could be because you’re using whitening treatments too often or that the treatment you’re using is too harsh on your teeth. Talk to your dentist about the treatments you’re using and the steps you’re taking to determine if there’s a better alternative.

There are so many possible causes of tooth sensitivity, and many of them have to be diagnosed or treated by a professional. Work with your dentist to determine the cause or causes of your tooth sensitivity and to decide on the right path to fix it. Treatment plans can include desensitizing toothpaste, which you may get over-the-counter or need a prescription for; fluoride treatment; or other types of dental procedures.

Discussing Your Sensitive Teeth with Your Dentist

If you have sensitive teeth and the issue doesn’t seem to be going away on its own, it’s time to speak with your dentist. Far too often, people try to deal with the issue on their own, but they only end up with more discomfort and pain. Furthermore, if there’s a serious underlying issue that’s contributing to your tooth sensitivity, ignoring it can lead to more serious problems down the road.

Keep in mind that even though a lot of people have discomfort when they drink foods that are acidic, cold, hot, sweet, spicy or sour, the fact that it’s common doesn’t make it normal – you should still seek out the causes and strive to fix them for the sake of your comfort and your oral health. While avoiding your trigger foods will quell your symptoms, it won’t actually fix the problem.

Here’s what you need to know about visiting your dentist to talk about your sensitive teeth and to create a treatment plan.

Scheduling an Appointment with Your Dentist

Your teeth are going to be with you for the rest of your life, and to make sure they remain healthy and intact that entire time, you have to take care of them, even when it comes to something seemingly benign, like tooth sensitivity. It’s normal for teeth to undergo damage over time, including the wearing down of enamel or the receding of gums, two things that may be to blame for your tooth sensitivity. It’s also common for abscesses, cavities and cracks to occur, all things that can make your teeth more sensitive.

There are more serious problems that can contribute to tooth sensitivity, too, and you don’t necessarily want to wait until your next regular checkup to have your teeth checked out. If you notice that you’re experiencing more severe tooth sensitivity or that you’re feeling more sensitive more often, or that the sensitivity is concentrated in one area, you’ll want to visit your dentist as soon as possible.

Visiting the Dentist

When you visit your dentist for tooth sensitivity, he’s going to first try to rule out certain causes. For example, he’ll inspect your teeth to make sure you don’t have any abscesses, cracked teeth, cavities or nerve damage.

Your dentist is also going to ask you a series of questions, so it’s a good idea to think about them ahead of time so you’re prepared to answer. Questions may include the following:

  • How often do you notice tooth sensitivity?
  • Which teeth feel sensitive? Is it all of them evenly, or are some teeth more sensitive than others?
  • How long is the tooth sensitive for? Does it come and go quickly, or does it stay around for a while?
  • When do you feel the sensitivity? Is it only when you eat certain foods, like hot or cold foods?
  • Do you feel sensitive when you eat food that’s acidic, like citrus fruits, or when you drink certain beverages?
  • Do you feel pain when you chew or bite into something?

To help you pinpoint the issue, consider keeping a journal of your tooth sensitivity for a few days leading up to your appointment.

Next, your dentist will try to determine the main cause of your tooth sensitivity and come up with a treatment plan to help improve your comfort. This may include changing your toothpaste to one that’s meant for sensitive teeth. He may suggest fluoride treatments to strengthen the teeth. You may be given a mouth guard, which can protect your teeth from clenching or at-night grinding, especially if you don’t realize you’re doing it. Or, you may need a crown, bonding or an inlay, or a more serious procedure, such as gum surgery or a root canal.

Before you panic at the thought of a dental procedure or surgery, realize that your dentist may start with less-serious troubleshooting methods to see if that cures the pain. Also, if you do have to move forward with a procedure, understand that it could help you avoid even more serious surgeries down the road.

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