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What does sensitivity mean? Or, I’m feelin’ it!

A common oral symptom that we hear is “sensitivity”.  While that may be the best way to describe it, symptoms can be further clarified to allow us to determine the extent of a problem.  Tell us more about the symptoms your mouth is feeling, and we can pretty much figure out your problem.

A previous post described how cavities develop.  Cavities may be a common cause of sensitivity, but if you have sensitivity, here are the things that we really want to know:

i) Where is the area in question (i.e.: which exact tooth if you can pinpoint it), and when did the pain start?

ii) Has it been getting worse, better, or staying the same?  What makes it worse (e.g.: cold, hot, sweet, biting).  When it does hurt, is it hurting continuously, or does it come and go?  Similarly, when exposed to cold/hot/sweet, how long does it hurt for?  Does it need a trigger to begin hurting, or does the pain occur spontaneously?

iii) Does it feel like the pain is coming from tooth or gums (as best as you can tell)?

iv) Have you taken anything for the pain, and did it work?

In our experience, mouth pain is notoriously difficult to pinpoint unless the cause is obvious.  This is because pain can radiate from one tooth to another, or from one area of the mouth to another.  Gum pain can feel like tooth pain.  Sinus pain can feel like tooth pain.  Neuralgias (where nerves are sending pain messages for no good dental reason) can feel like both gum and tooth pain.

So, a good history will often save the day.  The best description you can give will only help.  Which brings us to a never-ending source of frustration: the question of how cavities hurt, or oftentimes why they don’t hurt.

Small cavities on teeth are often painless.  These cavities can occur anywhere on a tooth that is exposed to oral cavity-causing bacteria (streptococcus mutans and lactobacillus species are well known culprits), and may include either virgin tooth surfaces, or around the edges of existing fillings / restorations.  It would be great if teeth could provide a reliable early-detection system for problems, but the reality is that the sensory nerves within teeth are limited to basically feeling pain.

When dental decay starts, it is seldom perceived by the patient.  As the decay progresses and becomes cavitated (i.e.: the affected area actually caves in), there may be some increased sensitivity to cold.  If the decay is not detected or treated before it gets deeper, this pain may become more intense.  When decay reaches the nerve and the nerve starts to die, often the symptoms are longer-lasting pain, spontaneous pain, pain to hot stimuli, and the classic toothache pain that is sharp and unremitting.  These are general guidelines, but it is entirely possible for a tooth to become decayed to the point where there is just a set of roots left, and yet never to have given a moment of pain.  That’s why we tell people not to wait until something hurts, because it’s often too late.

For a customized evaluation of your mouth or any specific symptom, it is important that a thorough examination (including testing, radiographs, and of course a complete history) is performed.  Please contact us if you have an issue to address.  We’d love to be your dentist in Barrie.


Dr. Elston Wong Portrait

About Dr. Elston Wong

Dr. Elston Wong completed his dental degree at The University of Toronto in 1999 before arriving in Barrie in 2002. After graduating, he continued to learn everything he could about dentistry. Now he has taken the time to share important information for anyone to read.

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