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Reporting on health and quality of life in South LA

Survey: 1 in 8 Americans have sensitive teeth; condition more common among young people, women

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Ever take a sip of ice-cold water, only to recoil when it washes over your teeth?

That may because you've got sensitive teeth – "dentin hypersensitivity," in dental speak – and a new survey suggests that one in eight Americans lives with the condition.

The study, appearing in the Journal of the American Dental Association, looked at dental practices in the Northwest U.S. and found that more than 12 percent of patients had sensitive teeth. About four of them, on average – and it was more common among young people, women, people with receding gums and people who whitened their teeth at home.

The American Dental Association (ADA) explains that teeth are covered with enamel, the strongest substance in the human body. Underneath the gum line, the tooth root is protected by something called cementum, and under the enamel and the cementum is dentin:

The dentin contains microscopic tubules (small hollow tubes or canals). When the dentin loses its protective covering, the tubules allow heat and cold or acidic or sticky foods to stimulate the nerves and cells inside the tooth.

Which is why it hurts to drink cold water or hot coffee when you have sensitive teeth, for example.

Researchers for the study defined it as a "chronic condition causing intermittent, low-level pain." They also concluded that "patients often seek relief from their dentin hypersensitivity but that treatments are far from perfect in relieving their pain." Consulting with a dentist only brought relief to about 38 percent of study participants.

While it's not life-threatening, the chronic ache of sensitive teeth can put a serious damper on the quality of a person's life. A lack of access to dental care is a major problem in South Los Angeles. At September's free Care Harbor clinic that took place in South L.A., Care Harbor CEO Don Manelli said dental care was by far the biggest need among those who lined up, sometimes days in advance, to ensure themselves a spot at the clinic.

One treatment for which people don't need a dentist is desensitizing toothpaste, which the ADA says helps "block sensation traveling from the tooth surface to the nerve." It may take a few applications before it starts working.

In-office treatments include "special desensitizing agents" or even a surgical gum graft that covers the root of the tooth to reduce sensitivity. Root canals are often the solution for severe cases, says the ADA.

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