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Teeth Sensitive? Don’t Look Now, but Your Dentin May Be Showing

“Your teeth are crystals, just like rocks,” explained Dr. Linda Niessen. “You know you erode rocks from water and rain; you can erode the teeth from these acidic drinks.”

The “acidic drinks” being blamed here for rising rates of dental sensitivity following tooth erosion are sports drinks like Gatorade, which some people think of as healthier than soda. In fact, they’re just another kind of soft drink, as are many sugar-laden energy drinks, juice-based drinks and teas.

It’s no surprise that we see more tooth erosion these days. The increase has paralleled the monumental rise in soft drink consumption and accelerated after the introduction of energy drinks – which may be even worse for teeth than soda – and popularization of sports drinks among non-athletes. Since the late 70s, “soft drink consumption in the United States has doubled for females and tripled for males. The highest consumption is in the males between the ages of 12 – 29; they average 1/2 gallon a day or 160 gallons a year.” Here in California (PDF), nearly half of all children aged 2 to 11 drink at least one soft drink a day, as do more than 60% of teens and 24% of adults.

Eroded teeth are necessarily sensitive teeth. The dentin – the layer of tissue between the tough enamel and the delicate pulp – is no longer protected. Cold air or liquid touching it may send shockwaves of pain through the tooth and into the jaw, or hot liquids or foods may cause discomfort.

Eroded teeth are also more prone to deep decay, since pathogenic oral microbes (“bad germs”) have easier access to the delicate tissues inside the tooth. Helping the decay process along are the continual sugar baths they get from soft drinks. Not only do the sugars feed the bacteria that cause decay, they also reverse the flow of fluids in the tooth so that microbes and their acidic waste products are pulled into it rather than repelled. (Read more about your teeth’s natural defenses against decay.)

Of course, when it comes to tooth erosion, soft drinks aren’t the only culprit – just a common one. For instance, stress can be a factor, often leading to grinding, clenching and other behaviors that weaken enamel over time. They also contribute to gum recession, where exposed tooth root also means more tooth sensitivity. (Chronic stress is also a drag on your immune system, making your body less resilient, more prone to disease and dysfunction.)

Another factor – often overlooked – is the effect of pharmaceutical drugs. (The skyrocketing rate of prescription drug use likewise parallels the rise in soft drink consumption.) As I mentioned before, dry mouth is a common “side effect” of drugs as varied as antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, antihistamines and muscle relaxants.

Dry mouth may not sound like anything too serious, but it’s got some significant dental implications, raising the risk of caries (cavities), tooth erosion and periodontal disease. This is because one of the functions of saliva is to wash away the microbes that make up dental biofilm (plaque) and food particles that feed them. Saliva is also a source of the calcium and phosophate particles that help keep tooth enamel strong. The less saliva, the more conditions favor decay and other tooth damage.

If dry mouth is an issue, there are remedies so you don’t put your teeth and gums at risk. In my office, for instance, we have products that can help, such as GC Dry Mouth Gel and the Dental Herb Company’s Tooth and Gums Tonic. But even just drinking more water can help relieve dry mouth, as can eating more foods that require chewing, especially foods like crunchy vegetables.

If grinding and clenching are a problem, your dentist can provide you with a splint to cushion and protect your teeth – as well as reduce the amount of associated pain you may be experiencing. (Neck, head, face, shoulder and back pain are all common, cascading effects of clenching and grinding.)

And, of course, moderating or eliminating soft drinks from your diet will also lower the risk of tooth erosion and sensitivity.

And if the damage is already done? Above all, see your dentist, so he or she can assess the situation, offer solutions and help you decide on the best course of action for fixing your teeth. In the interim, avoid stimuli that aggravate the pain and, when cleaning your teeth, use a very soft toothbrush and toothpaste formulated for sensitive teeth.

Image by stuartpilbrow, via Flickr

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