Does the idea of biting into a frozen ice cream cone make you cringe? Do you find brushing, or flossing, or even just rinsing a painful ordeal? Do you have to wait for hot beverages to cool down before you can sip them?

If you answered yes to any of the above, you are not alone. A recent survey conducted by the American Dental Association concluded that one out of every eight Americans suffers from mild to extreme “dentin hypersensitivity,” or sensitive teeth.

The good news: the discomfort of sensitive teeth can often be reduced or eliminated through modification of behavior that may be causing the condition. So I thought it would be helpful to explain why the condition exists, what causes it, and how you can reduce or eliminate the effects.

Why your teeth become sensitive.

Your teeth are covered to the gum line by enamel, an incredibly strong substance that protects the interior anatomy of your teeth. Below the gum line, a substance called cementum provides a less durable but effective insulation for the tooth. Behind the enamel and cementum is a layer of dentin, a porous-like material made up small, hollow canals. Behind the dentin are the tooth root and nerves.

Teeth become sensitive when enamel, cementum, or both become worn or compromised. The porous nature of exposed dentin allows hot, cold, acidic, or sweet foods elements to be transferred to the inner tooth where they interact with the nerves—resulting in mild to intense pain.

What causes sensitive teeth?

As you may have already guessed, ANYTHING that compromises tooth enamel or recedes your gum line to expose the cementum can be at the root of your discomfort. Following are some of the most common causes of sensitive tooth pain—along with home remedy solutions that could help with the problem:

Cause: Eating highly-acidic foods like citrus, tomato sauce, etc.
Solution: Avoid those foods whenever possible.

Cause: You brush with too much force and/or with too hard a toothbrush—both of which can wear down enamel and damage gums.
Solution: Switch to a softer toothbrush—and save the rigorous arm workouts for the gym!

Cause: Grinding your teeth, especially when vigorously exercising or sleeping, as repetitive tooth grinding wears out protective enamel.
Solution: See your dentist about getting fitted for sports and nighttime mouth guards.

Cause: Tooth-whitening toothpaste and/or mouthwash that contain alcohol, bleach, and other strong chemicals that stimulate nerve pain.
Solution: Switch to more balanced, fluoride toothpaste and mouth rinse. You may ALSO want to consider trying a desensitizing toothpaste. Over-the counter and dentist provided desensitizing toothpastes can help block the sensation received by the nerves after just a few applications.

Causes of sensitive teeth that require treatment from your dentist.

While relief from sensitive teeth can often be realized through behavior modification, the condition COULD be an indicator of a more serious dental condition. It is strongly recommend you visit your dentist if you have sensitive teeth to rule out the following:

Cause: Gum disease. Gingivitis, gum disease, or receding gums are all conditions that can cause sensitive teeth, and if left untreated much worse.
Solution: Treatments can include treating the disease, grafting receded gums, and sealing the teeth.

Cause: Extreme plaque. Excessive plaque build up wears away protective tooth enamel, resulting in sensitivity.
Solution: Improve daily oral hygiene and schedule more frequent professional cleanings with your dentist—up to 4 times a year in necessary.

Cause: Sensitivity after a dental office visit. While it is common for teeth to become more sensitive immediately after a dental procedure, prolonged or increasing pain could be an indicator of something more, including infection.
Solution: Schedule a post-procedure check-up immediately.

Cause: A cracked or chipped tooth that compromises the structure and barrier properties of the tooth.
Solution: See your dentist to determine the best course of repair. This can include  bonding, a crown, or even extraction followed by a bridge or implant.

Cause: Decay—especially where older fillings meet the tooth and allow elements to leek inside—is a common cause of tooth sensitivity.
Solution: Schedule an appointment with your dentist to get fillings repaired, or removed and repaired using one of the newer, tooth-colored restorations available today.

Conclusion:

Like the rest of your anatomy, feeling pain in the teeth is usually an indicator that attention and treatment of some type are needed to maintain peak health. To determine which courses of action might bring you the best relief from sensitive teeth, I strongly recommend you begin with a professional dental consultation.