Treatment Options for Sensitive Teeth

Tooth hypersensitivity eased with filling or sealant as well as special toothpaste

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) The sharp pain of a sensitive tooth can quickly ruin the joy brought by a delicious ice cream treat. Fortunately, there’s more than one way to soothe a sensitive tooth.

In a recent trial, dentists tested three different methods for treating hypersensitive teeth.

The results of the trial showed that a dental sealant or filling worked better than over-the-counter toothpaste to reduce pain of sensitivity.

"Talk to a dentist about sensitive teeth."

Analia Veitz-Keenan, DDS, a clinical associate professor in the College of Dentistry at New York University, led a clinical trial to test different methods to treat tooth sensitivity.

Tooth hypersensitivity was defined by the authors as any pain caused by a non-harmful substance. Basically, a corrosive substance like battery acid should cause tooth pain, but if ice cream causes tooth pain—that’s considered hypersensitive.

When a person’s gums pull back away from the base of the tooth exposing the tooth’s root, or the tooth’s top layer (enamel) has eroded away exposing the second layer (dentin), hypersensitivity can happen. When a tooth is hypersensitive, cold water, ice cream and even breathing through the mouth can spark a sharp pain.

When this type of exposure happens near the base of the tooth or on the outer bulbous part of the tooth, the technical term is noncarious cervical lesion (NCCL).

For this study, 17 dentists from the Practitioners Engaged in Applied Research and Learning (PEARL) Network designed a clinical trial to test three different methods to treat hypersensitive teeth.

In the study, 304 patients that had complaints of hypersensitive teeth were randomly split into the three trial groups.

About 42 percent of the participants had a habit of grinding their teeth at night—a known contributor to tooth hypersensitivity.

To test for hypersensitivity, each participant was subject to a one-second air blast in the area(s) of his or her NCCL(s).

On a scale from 0-10, with 10 being the most painful, the average level of sensitivity at the start of the trial was 5.3. The dentists considered a person to have a hypersensitive tooth if they reported a pain score of 3 or higher.

In the first group, participants were given a tube of toothpaste that contained 5 percent potassium nitrate. This type of toothpaste can be bought over the counter and is specifically labeled for sensitive teeth.

In the second group, the research dentists used resin-based composite to cover the exposed area of the sensitive tooth/teeth. Resin-based composite is commonly used to fill cavities.

In the third group, the research dentists used a sealant to cover the exposed area of the hypersensitive tooth/teeth. Sealant use is common to prevent cavities by protecting the tooth from potential erosion.

After six months, each participant was tested again with a one-second air blast.

On average, the people in the sensitive toothpaste group reported a 2.2 on the pain scale. The people in the resin-based composite, or filling, group reported an average of 1.0 on the pain scale. Those in the sealant group reported an average of 0.8 on the pain scale.

The people in the sensitive toothpaste group reported better pain reduction the longer they kept using the toothpaste.

The researchers said that the sensitive toothpaste did help in reducing tooth hypersensitivity, but not as well as the filling or sealant methods.

"Using a toothpaste formulated for sensitivity may provide temporary relief, but it does not solve the underlying problem of why teeth are sensitive. Many times sensitivity to cold is caused by exposed root or tooth surfaces, either due to harsh brushing techniques or nighttime grinding,” said Dana Fort, DDS, a general dentist who maintains a private practice in Chicago and Hinsdale, Illinois.

“Simply using a toothpaste but continuing with these bad habits will erode more of the tooth over time, thus prolonging discomfort. Having a filling or sealant placed over the sensitive area on the other hand, solves the problem by covering the exposed tooth surface thus preventing further destruction and sensitivity," continued Dr. Fort, who was not involved in this study.

A tube of over-the-counter toothpaste for sensitive teeth can run between $3 and $5. Dental sealant can run between $30 and $75 per tooth, and a filling can run between $0 and $250, depending upon insurance and location.

This study was published in May in the Journal of the American Dental Association.

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, an agency of the National Institutes of Health, and Practitioners Engaged in Applied Research and Learning Network provided funding for this project. No conflicts of interest were declared.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 15, 2013
Last Updated:
September 18, 2013