Exposed Dentin

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Exposed dentin – what does it mean, what causes it, and how can you prevent dentin exposure in the first place?

If you have ever experienced exposed dentin, you know that it is no joke. Dentin exposure can happen for a number of different reasons, ranging from overzealous brushing to one of many consequences of gum recession. 

Treating exposed dentin doesn’t always require the help of a dentist, but it is nevertheless a good idea to consult your dentist sooner rather than later if you begin to notice any of the symptoms associated with dentin exposure. These symptoms include dentin sensitivity and sudden shooting pains.

Are you ready to learn more about how to prevent dentin exposure, how to spot the signs of dentin exposure as it is developing, and when to seek professional help from your dentist?

Key differences between tooth enamel and dentin

Dentin is the softer, more flexible layer covering the dental pulp and undergirding the tooth enamel. Because of its hard-wearing yet supple structure, dentin is built perfectly for the two primary functions it serves. These functions are to absorb pressure, weight and impact from tooth grinding, biting and chewing, while adding another protective layer around the sensitive dental pulp chamber.

Dentin also serves the purpose of transmitting information such as temperature and pressure from the outer to the inner layers of the tooth. 

Most people never think about or are aware the fact that they have a layer of dentin underneath their enamel. This is as it should be. When your enamel layer is intact, your dentin is hidden and protected. 

If, however, your enamel chips, breaks or wears away, the dentin layer underneath will become exposed. 

Enamel, once it has cracked, chipped or broken, is going to remain that way until a dentist fixes it back up. Dentin, however, possesses regenerative qualities and is able to regrow if it is just given the right conditions for healing. 

Causes of exposed dentin

What are the causes of exposed dentin?

Dentin exposure can happen for a number of different reasons. Here is a rundown of the more common ones:

Cracked, chipped or broken teeth

A common and very obvious cause of dentin exposure is broken, cracked or chipped teeth. When the enamel sustains sudden damage, whether we are talking about a partial missing tooth structure or a hairline fracture, the dentin underneath becomes exposed.

If your dentin exposure happens as a result of a damaged tooth, you’ll know right away, because the exposed dentin or even the exposed pulp is going to be visible.

If your dentin has become exposed as a result of damage to any of your teeth, you should see a dentist right away for treatment, because while the dentin is capable of regenerating, the damage can be too excessive for your dentin to heal on its own. 

Gum recession 

Gum recession can leave teeth roots exposed and can also cause extra wear and tear on part of the dentin that would otherwise be covered up and protected by your gum.

Receding gums is never something you want to experience in the first place, and not only because it can be unsightly. Receding gums are frequently as sign of gum disease or another underlying issue, so if you notice your gums receding from your teeth, you should bring this up with your dentist sooner rather than later so you can get the proper diagnosis and treatment.

Teeth grinding

Teeth grinding is exceptionally tough on the enamel. When you grind your teeth, whether in your waking life or in the depths of sleep at night, you are wearing down your enamel much faster than you should be.

Fortunately, there are several things you can do to prevent yourself from grinding your teeth. More on this later in the article.

Overzealous brushing

Many seem to think that the more vigorously you brush your teeth the better. But this is very far from the truth.

Brushing your teeth properly has much more to do with technique, frequency and using the correct toothbrush and toothpaste than it does with using as much force as humanly possible.

Dentin exposure symptoms

If you have exposed dentin, you won’t always know it right away. 

In some cases, exposed dentin is an obvious by-product of tooth decay or a tooth that has either chipped or cracked. But at other times, dentin exposure can happen much more gradually, which is why you should keep an eye out for the following symptoms:

Tooth sensitivity

When the outer layer of enamel wears away, one of the first signs of dental exposure you are going to notice is heightened sensitivity to hot or cold foods and temperatures.

Tooth sensitivity is not exactly painful, but the sensation is nevertheless uncomfortable and can get more intense if the dentin exposure isn’t treated.

Tooth decay

Dentin exposure can lead to tooth decay. This doesn’t happen right away, but is the inevitable result if you leave exposed dentin be without any kind of treatment. 

Once the enamel has eroded and the bacteria-filled plaque attacks the dentin, the insides of the tooth will soon become infected. The dentin, while durable and protective, cannot withstand the onslaught of bacteria for long. 

This is why it is so important to cover up thinning enamel before bacteria can get to the dentin and then the pulp of your tooth.

Sharp shooting pain

Sometimes, exposed dentin can cause a sharp shooting pain. The reason for this sensation is that that the dentin contains thousands of nerve endings that are also connected to the pulp of the tooth. The pulp contains a nerve fibre that reads all sensation it perceives as pain. 

How to prevent exposed dentin

So, how can you prevent dentin exposure? Here are our top tips.

Brush gently

If your enamel is wearing thin and your dentin is becoming exposed, it is important to look at how you are brushing your teeth. 

You might think that brushing your teeth with as much force and using an abrasive toothpaste is the way to go, but practicing good oral health and hygiene has more to do with using the right tooth brush, toothpaste and technique.

See your dentist regularly for checkups

The importance of regular checkups cannot be overstated. 

If your enamel is wearing thin, your dentist will be able to spot the early signs of it before you start noticing any of the symptoms.

Is your dentin exposed? Here is what to do

  • Consult with your dentist
  • Wear a protective mouthguard
  • Get a surgical gum graft
  • Use desensitizing toothpaste 
  • A root canal may be necessary

Frequently asked questions

What happens if dentin is exposed?

If your dentin is exposed, your teeth will become much more sensitive, as well as much more vulnerable to infections and decay. 

The good news is that exposed dentin can be treated, usually without surgical intervention.

How do you treat exposed dentin?

Exposed dentin can be treated in a number of different ways, depending on the severity of the exposure and what is needed. 

Fluoride treatments may be enough to keep your dentin and enamel strong while your dentin regenerates, but in many cases the exposed dentil will have to be covered up either by a filling or a gum graft. This is to protect the dentin and the pulp chamber.

Will exposed dentin heal?

Yes, exposed dentin is capable of healing on its own. When suddenly exposed, dentin produces a third layer, which is also referred to as reparative dentin. By doing this, dentin is capable of regenerating itself, whereas enamel once broken can only be fixed by a dentist.

In order for exposed dentin to heal, you will have to provide it with the right conditions. Depending on the severity of the dentin exposure you are dealing with, this may include a gum graft to cover up and protect the exposed dentin, fluoride treatment, wearing a mouthguard or simply switching to a different and more effective toothpaste.

How do you know if your dentin is exposed?

If your enamel has eroded and left your dentin exposed, you’ll know because your affected teeth will become much more sensitive to all kinds of stimuli – particularly to hot and cold temperatures, but also to acidic foods and drinks.

Dr Febin Mary George - Editor

With more than 10 years as a dental surgeon, Dr Febin Mary George is passionate about educating consumers around the world to help look after their teeth.

She completed her Bachelor of Surgery at the Century Institute of Dental Science and Research Centre in 2010.

Alongside editing the International Journal of Dental Clinics she has also written for major publications including Thrive Global.