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Ouch! That icecream hurt, so did the coffee

Sensitivity is one of the most common complaints adults have about their teeth. Irrespective of what flavour the ice cream is, if you have sensitive teeth the taste ends up being bittersweet...

health and fitness Updated: Dec 23, 2008 21:15 IST

Irrespective of what flavour the ice cream is, if you have sensitive teeth the taste ends up being bittersweet - tingling on the tongue but painful on the gums.

The case is no different for a patient of tooth sensitivity when he sips on a cup of hot coffee or tea - the shooting pain in his teeth takes over all other sensations.

"Sensitivity is one of the most common complaints adults have about their teeth," said Porus S. Turner, a dentist and member of the Indian Dental Association (IDA).

According to the IDA, one in three adults in India suffer from tooth sensitivity, making it painful to drink hot and cold drinks or even to smile on a cold winter day.

"People experience pain in the tooth when the enamel or surface of the tooth is worn out. This is caused by simple teeth grinding, loose or missing fillings or even acidic foods," Turner added.

Our teeth are made up of three layers. The outermost layer, which covers the upper half of the tooth, is called enamel. The layer which covers the root section of the tooth is called cementum. The layer beneath these is called dentine.

This layer is not as mineralised and is less dense than the outer layers. More importantly, it contains thin tubes, which connect it to the soft portion of the tooth that contains nerve endings. Exposure of the dentine leads to dental sensitivity.

"Temperature changes like cold and hot or pH (acidity) changes like sweet and sour foods cause the fluid in the tubules to move. This movement tugs on the tiny nerves causing sensitivity and pain," said Renu Bhargava, a dentist who runs a clinic in south Delhi.

Although tooth sensitivity can be seen in people of all ages, it is more often found in people in the 20-40 age group. Women have been found to be more susceptible to sensitivity.

One reason is that people use too much force while brushing their teeth, dentists say.

"Over weeks, months and years of brushing they remove significant tooth tissue as well as gum tissue, exposing the inner portion of the tooth and exposing the root," Turner explained.

Turner also said that in India, the majority of people use pieces of coal or tooth powder to clean teeth, but these are corrosive and cause abrasions in the teeth and gums.

The most common symptom is sharp or shooting pain caused while eating hot or cold, sweet or sour food.

A Sairam is a corporate executive who suffers from the problem. After consulting his dentist about the recurring problem, he was advised to use a soft brush and special toothpaste for his teeth.

"I used to experience discomfort while drinking cold drinks or hot tea. I ignored the problem for years before consulting the doctor. It turned out I had sensitive teeth and now I use a soft brush. I have instructions to hold the brush by its end so as to minimise pressure and move it in a circular rather than linear manner," Sairam said.

Depending on the cause, a dentist may suggest desensitising toothpaste that contains compounds that help block sensation travelling from the tooth surface to the nerve.

The key to preventing this condition is to keep your gums healthy by reducing the pressure you use while brushing, use a soft toothbrush and to maintain good oral health habits. Flossing is also crucial, according to IDA.

"Brush your teeth for two to three minutes, not the usual 30-45 seconds that most people spend," Turner suggested.

First Published: Dec 23, 2008 21:14 IST