What causes sensitive teeth?

If you flinch from biting into an ice cream bar or the cold wind of the northeast winter, you probably have sensitive teeth. But before you run to a Boston dentist, you should understand the cause of sensitivity.

Tooth sensitivity arises from exposed nerve endings. These nerves readily detect changes in temperature or acidity within your mouth, sending a jolt of pain through your teeth. Avoiding acidic foods or drastic temperature changes prevents the discomfort, but avoidance does not address the underlying causes of tooth sensitivity.

Chips and Cracks

Healthy teeth have an outermost layer of enamel on all visible surfaces. Beneath the gum line, a similar layer called cementum offers protection to nerves below your gums. Enamel and cementum overlay a softer, more porous part of the tooth: the dentin layer. This white material makes up most of the volume of your teeth. Within the dentin lies the soft pulp of the tooth, an area rich in nerve endings. Tiny holes in the dentin remain from its formation; under normal circumstances, these dentinal tubules remain protected by a layer of enamel.

When your teeth develop even tiny chips or cracks, the porous dentin becomes exposed. Hot, cold or acidic liquids can soak into the pores of the dentin as you eat and drink, channeling extreme temperature and pH changes directly to sensitive nerves. The result can be anything from mild discomfort to a galvanizing pain. Your dentist can determine the health of your enamel layer and repair chips and cracks that contribute to sensitive teeth.


Although enamel is the hardest substance found in the human body, it can eventually wear away over decades of use. Sensitivity of the chewing surfaces of molars is often the result of long-term wearing of tooth enamel that exposes dentinal tubules to temperature changes. The same diet that is healthy for the rest of your body may cause greater wear and tear on your teeth. If you regularly eat whole grains and raw vegetables, you could create more stress on tooth enamel as these firmer foods abrade the upper enamel layers.

A highly acidic mouth environment creates chemical wear on enamel. If you consume plenty of citrus fruits, pickles or soft drinks, rinse your mouth with water after eating or drinking to restore a more neutral environment to your mouth. Prolonged illness that puts your teeth in regular contact with stomach acid can also lead to sensitive teeth.

Receding Gums

If you notice greater tooth sensitivity at your gum line, receding gums may be the culprit. Enamel protects the crowns of your teeth from temperature changes more effectively than cementum protects your gums. Where the two layers meet, dentin may be partially exposed, leading to gumline tooth sensitivity. Maintain gum health with regular, but gentle brushing and flossing. Overly zealous brushing with a hard-bristled brush can cause gum damage and erode enamel, leading to more sensitive teeth.


The American Dental Association recommends desensitizing toothpastes that bear the ADA Seal of Acceptance on the package. These toothpastes slowly deposit mineral particles that plug the ends of open dentinal tubules. Because they work gradually, you must use these products for at least a month before they take effect. In-office treatments for sensitive teeth include painting your teeth with a fluoride gel, repairing fissures and applying a bonded coating that seals open tubules. Consulting a highly rated Chicago dentist can help get the best treatment to mitigate the problem.

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5 common causes of sensitive teeth


Aggressive brushing with a hard toothbrush is one of the most common causes of sensitivity, as it brushes away gum tissue, says Gausmann. (Photo by Katie Jacewicz)
Aggressive brushing with a hard toothbrush is one of the most common causes of sensitivity, as it brushes away gum tissue, says Gausmann. (Photo by Katie Jacewicz)

Sensitive teeth can cause discomfort and limit eating and drinking choices. However, this issue can often be controlled or eliminated with a few simple changes.

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