Sensitivity — for the feelings of others, for the qualities that contribute to success in school or in business, for the needs of children and for the well being of the community — is a good thing. Sensitive teeth? Not so much!

It’s not a small problem. Statistics vary widely, but various studies cited in an article in the Journal of the American Dental Association found that up to half the population has experienced tooth sensitivity. People between the ages of 18 and 44 are almost three times as likely to feel pain, and women are almost twice as likely as men to complain about sensitive teeth. Some analysts tend to think that women are also more prone to report such sensitivity. The good news is that, usually, the pain is short-lived, even though it may be sharp.

Is Tooth Sensitivity All About Food?

Almost everyone has, at one time or another felt the twinge of pain associated with drinking hot tea or consuming hot soup. Ice cold liquid, ice cream, popsicles and cold watermelon can be enough to send others into spasms. Wine, orange juice and sour pickles make other people cringe. Hot liquids, ice cold drinks, sugary foods and high acidic content are the most common pain triggers. But, there are other causes: Use (or misuse) of over-the-counter tooth whitening products, too much mouthwash, receding gums, plaque buildup and grinding the teeth are frequently cited.

For approximately 12 percent of the adult population, or one in eight, the problem is severe enough that general dentists recommend special toothpastes as well as soft toothbrushes. Others recommend rinsing the mouth with water following every meal and waiting for at least 15 minutes after a meal before brushing. Some dental professionals also offer detailed instruction in proper methods of brushing and flossing, i.e., vertical motion on the tooth surface, rather than horizontally between tooth and gum.

More Serious Causes of Sensitive Teeth

In some cases, sensitivity can be attributed to receding gums, gingivitis, a cracked tooth, an untreated cavity or worn enamel due to excessive tooth clenching or grinding. It is interesting that the incidence decreases in older people who maintain exemplary oral health, even if they experienced sensitivity while younger. A partial explanation may be that dentin, that layer of tooth structure just under the enamel, increases with tooth age and offers greater “insulation” from pain. Dentin is softer than enamel; it is also the “transmitter” of pain through tubules or channels that lead to the nerves.

Problems with clenching or grinding are addressed through conscious relaxation, or by wearing a mouth guard at night. Your dentist may recommend periodontal work for treatment of specific gum problems. If those telltale-shooting pains occur only when you eat or drink specific things, consider altering your diet at least temporarily. Try drinking cold liquids through a straw.

It helps to remember that occasional tooth sensitivity, by itself, is no cause for alarm. Sometimes, a tooth can become “bite-sensitive” after a filling. That problem usually is solved by a simple adjustment. If sensitivity persists over a long period of time, or if you are unable to alleviate those sharp pains by avoiding offending substances, it is wise to schedule a professional consultation.

A comprehensive assessment for tooth sensitivity is the only way to determine if there is another underlying cause for the pain. Treatment options exist: Gum surgery, crowns, inlays, bonding or veneers, even root canals or implants. It’s okay to experience an occasional “ouch” or even a fleeting gasp, but make that appointment if those pains persist!