When I feel a twinge of pain or sensitivity in my neck or back, I never hesitate to call my physical therapist to investigate what's going on. But when it comes to my teeth, I usually shrug off small signs of discomfort. That was until Dr. Marianna Weiner, the leading cosmetic dentist at Envy Smile, told me I should show my oral health the same attention as the rest of my body.
"Sensitivity is the first sign something is not right, and it starts at the surface," she explained. "I define sensitivity as any new sensation on or around your tooth, but specifically, it can be caused and felt in a few different ways."
According to Dr. Weiner, the leading cause of sensitivity is when a tooth's enamel is worn down or damaged to the point where the dentin (the part of your tooth that surrounds the pulp, or the nerves in our teeth) is exposed. Brushing too aggressively, grinding your teeth at night, cracking or chipping a tooth, chewing ice, overly exposing your teeth to sugary foods and drinks, and smoking or chewing tobacco are all common ways to provoke sensitivity, she said.
But, not every cause of tooth sensitivity is common knowledge — it's important to be vigilant of surprising agitators, too. Tongue piercings are one example Dr. Weiner mentioned, as the consistent meeting of the teeth and metal can be damageing to one's enamel. Habitually chewing your nails can cause problems, too, because it's generally unhygienic, and it can cause enamel chipping — especially if you have sturdier nails, she added.
"On the same note of little known sensitivity causes, we should talk about what we should be using our teeth for," Dr. Weiner said. "No tooth is meant to replace a literal tool, and the trauma inflicted on your teeth every time you use them as a tool is not worth replacing the effort of finding the correct tool for the job. Your teeth are much harder to replace than a bottle opener."
If your teeth aren't able to handle the touch of sugary foods and drinks, this is a common sign of tooth sensitivity, which can indicate you need a filling, Dr. Weiner said. She added that temperature sensitivity (from both hot and cold foods and drinks!), which often presents as a short, sharp twinge of pain, is also a sign you should call your dentist.
For those currently feeling good, know that staying out of the sensitivity zone is all about taking preventative measures and making sure to avoid the bad habits mentioned above. "Let's say you might be someone who participates in a solid few of the examples I spoke about earlier. My next advice would be to invest in ways to heal the sensitive spots at home," Dr. Weiner said.
With your dentist's approval, try out a desensitizing toothpaste. Dr. Weiner said that the most active ingredient should be potassium nitrate, a compound that blocks the pain signals from travelling from your tooth to your brain.
"Another simple yet surprising help for our dental health would be using (chilled or room temperature!) unsweetened green tea as a mouthwash. Green tea is very well known for the many good things it can do for our bodies, but did you know it strengthens our teeth and reduces inflammation within our mouths?"
Rinsing with warm salt water a couple of times a week can also help increase the mouth's Ph level, which can prevent bacteria buildup in your teeth and gums, she explained. "Teeth can be slightly sensitive, and you could want to brush it off, but if within two weeks you're feeling real pain, you'll be wishing you had at least tried a salt-water rinse," Dr. Weiner said.
"Sensitivity gets worse the longer it is left untreated, and as our enamel does not grow back, we must protect it as much as we can." Once a tooth is sensitive, you should call your dentist and discuss the possibility of needing a filling, which will keep your nerve safe from bacteria and relieve discomfort, Dr. Weiner said.
When left untreated (for even under a week in some cases!), bacteria will continue to eat away at your enamel, and you could end up needing a root canal to save the tooth altogether.