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The Importance of Protecting Exposed Dentin: Your Guide to Dental Health

8 min read
by Dylan Hao |

Caring for your teeth is an essential part of your overall health. But most of us focus on the basics: brushing and (sometimes) flossing. We want our teeth to stay white, shiny, and healthy.

However, if your teeth are starting to look less than pearly, it could be because your dentin is becoming exposed. Although your enamel, which protects the tooth's inner layers (like the dentin), is harder than bone, it can wear away over time. When this happens, it’s a slippery slope to enamel sensitivity and tooth pain.

What is dentin, and why is it so important that it stays protected? We’ll break down these and other questions in this guide.

Tooth Anatomy: An Overview

We all know that a tooth is what is seen when a person smiles, but what many people don’t realize until they have a dental issue is that the tooth goes far beyond the visible aspect.

Your teeth have a primary function: to cut and crush foods so you can swallow and digest them. In the meantime, they’re a significant part of your appearance, determining whether you have a smile you want to show off or one you prefer to hide.

Although the average adult has 32 teeth, they’re made up of four categories: incisors, canines, premolars, and molars. Each tooth has a different job but the same overall structure, consisting of a crown and root.

The crown is the visible part of the tooth above the gums, and the root anchors the crown to the periodontal ligament, which holds the tooth to the jaw. The crown and root are protected by four layers:

  • Enamel, the hardest substance in the body, shields the teeth from bacteria.
  • Dentin, the softer, yellowish layer under the enamel, covers the cementum and tooth pulp.
  • Cementum, a cement-like material, covers the tooth root and helps to anchor the tooth to the jaw.
  • Tooth pulp, the innermost layer, houses the nerves, blood vessels, and tissue.

By the time your enamel erodes and bacteria reaches the dentin, you’ve lost your primary defense against tooth decay and painfully exposed nerves. And since dentin is naturally yellow instead of the white hue of enamel, your teeth will also begin to look discolored, turning off-white or yellowish.

Preventing this problem means understanding what causes exposed dentin in the first place, and we’ll dig into that next.

How Dentin Becomes Exposed

Whether your goal is to have a pearly white smile or to ensure your teeth are healthy, the key to both is to protect your dentin. There are various reasons for exposed dentin; if you recognize them early, you can prevent the problem.

Here are four of the most common causes of dentin exposure and some potential ways to avoid having this problem happen to you.

Aggressive Brushing

woman brushing her teeth

Did you know that getting too excited about brushing your teeth could actually be a bad thing?

Scrubbing your teeth for too long, especially if you’re using a hard-bristled toothbrush or abrasive toothpaste, is considered aggressive or overzealous brushing. Instead of being a good thing, it can scrape away your enamel. 

It’s terrific to be thorough when you’re brushing. However, unless your dentist tells you otherwise, you should use a soft-bristled brush and a non-abrasive toothpaste. 

Be extra cautious around the gumline, as that’s the area where your enamel is naturally thinnest. Consider investing in an electric toothbrush that times your brushing cycle and controls the pressure you put on your teeth.

Bruxism

Teeth grinding — officially called bruxism — is a condition that stems from misaligned bites (malocclusions), stress, or diseases that affect the jaw muscles.

Bruxers grind their teeth and clench their jaw without realizing it, usually while sleeping. When this goes on long-term, it wears away the outer layer of enamel, exposing the dentin.

The only way to eliminate bruxism is to figure out what’s causing it and to fix that issue.

This may mean visiting your doctor for stress management solutions or to receive a sleep disorder treatment. In some cases, you may need to see an orthodontist or dentist to have dental work completed.

In the meantime, you can reduce the damage caused by this condition by wearing a custom-made night guard from professionals like us at JS Dental Lab.

These are made from acrylics and other materials that slide over your upper or lower teeth comfortably to prevent them from touching. When your jaw tries to clench and your teeth want to grind, they can’t make contact, and the destruction to your enamel doesn’t happen.

Read more: 8 Reasons to Choose JS Dental Lab Custom Night Guard

Receding Gums

Gum disease is a serious condition caused by accumulating plaque along the gumline. This area is called the gingival margin. It’s where the edge of the gum meets your enamel.

When plaque builds up here, it can eat away at the gum tissue. 

Early gum disease is gingivitis, and it can be reversed. But if it’s left untreated for too long, it turns into periodontitis, an irreversible condition that leads to gum recession.

When the gums recede below the enamel, it will eventually expose the cementum layer and dentin, letting bacteria and plaque buildup get to the tooth's pulp.

The only way to avoid periodontal disease is to ensure you have strong oral hygiene habits. Brush correctly at least twice a day using a fluoride toothpaste, and include flossing in your daily routine. Follow-up with mouthwash to flush away any residual bacteria and plaque.

Have those bi-annual dental cleanings and checkups with your dental professional, and follow any instructions they give you for preventive care.

GERD - Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease

Do you have signs of heartburn frequently?

More than just being annoying, this could indicate that you have a condition known as GERD — Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease.

GERD happens when your stomach acid re-enters your esophagus and returns to your mouth. It’s painful, and the acid can eat away at the soft tissue in your esophagus. If it makes it back into your mouth, that acid can also erode the enamel and cause tooth decay.

GERD is usually managed by medication, lifestyle changes, and dietary adjustments, such as avoiding acidic foods. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary. If you have GERD, talk to your dentist to find out how to take care of your teeth while managing your medical condition.

The Consequences of Exposed Dentin

Most of us focus on our enamel as the most important part of the tooth, and that’s somewhat true. Enamel is the defense line, the warrior that protects the tooth castle from the enemies of plaque and tartar.

But the dentin, cementum, tooth pulp, and nerves are crucial, too. Without them, you have significant — and painful — dental complications.

When the dentin is exposed, those microorganisms can enter the dental pulp, infecting the nerves and blood vessels. This leads to dentinal hypersensitivity, dentinal sclerosis, and a high risk of tooth and bloodstream infection.

Dentinal Hypersensitivity

woman holding her jaw in pain

Hypersensitivity refers to any extreme sensation a person feels. Dentinal hypersensitivity is the result of exposed dentin from decay or wear.

Since dentin is supposed to protect the nerves, when it’s damaged, those nerves are exposed. This causes heightened sensitivity to hot and cold temperatures and air.

Dentinal Sclerosis

Your dentin is made of microscopic tubules, tiny tubes that link the pulp to the bottom layer of enamel. Healthy tubules are hollow — allowing for oxygenation and blood flow — but they can calcify and harden, a condition called dentinal sclerosis. This weakens the tooth's structure and increases the chance of bacteria getting to the dental pulp.

Tooth Infection

Dentin protects the central pulpy tissues in the gums from infection-causing bacteria. When the dentin layers deteriorate, they can’t do their job, and the tooth pulp is at higher risk of infection. Any time you have a dental procedure, whether a filling or a root canal, this lack of dentin increases the chance of complications due to infection.

When Exposed Dentin Is an Emergency

Although exposed dentin is a serious issue, it can usually wait until you schedule an appointment with your dentist for treatment. However, you should seek emergency care if your problem is due to a broken tooth.

If you see the red, exposed pulp, contact your dentist and let them know what your signs are. They may schedule an immediate appointment or send you to an emergency dentistry specialist.

How to Treat Damaged Dentin

As with any health condition, prevention is the best form of treatment. Use the proper oral hygiene techniques we discussed above, and be sure to head to the dentist for regular cleanings and checkups. 

To ensure you’re giving your teeth the maximum chance to be healthy, eat a balanced diet that includes calcium, phosphorous, and Vitamins A, C, and D. Avoid acidic and hard or sticky foods that can damage the enamel. 

Even if it’s too late, and you already have thinning enamel or damaged dentin on one or more teeth, these preventative steps will help the rest of your teeth have a fighting chance. In addition, consider these treatments to reduce the symptoms of pain and extreme sensitivity.

Sensitive Teeth Toothpaste

Some toothpaste brands are designed to block tooth nerve sensitivity. Your dentist can recommend a desensitizing toothpaste that should kick in after a few days.

In addition, they may suggest an in-office fluoride gel treatment, which also strengthens the enamel left on your tooth and can treat dentin exposure.

Night Guards

Night guards are a quick and easy defense that protects your dentin from more wear and tear. A custom-fit night guard covers each tooth so that while you’re sleeping, your enamel is safe from any grinding or clenching habits you may have. Keep in mind that not all night guards are the same. For optimal protection, use a high-quality, professional-grade oral appliance. 

At JS Dental Lab, we make customizing a night guard to your precise specifications easy. Our mail-order impression kit lets you get the benefits of the same type of guard you’d receive from your dentist’s office at a fraction of the cost, all without leaving your house!

Here’s how it works.

Dental Procedures

Depending on how far-developed your dental problems are, your dentist could suggest a procedure that prevents further damage.

A dental crown covers the remaining visible tooth. Inlay and bonding procedures to adhere a veneer is another option, as it shields the dentin from exposure. 

These restorations are performed in the office and usually only require a local anesthetic. After your procedure, the sensitive parts of the tooth that were in danger of exposure are protected.

Gum Grafts

When the cause of your dentin exposure is gum disease, a surgical gum graft may be the answer. Gum tissue lost at the root level leaves the root exposed to infection and extreme sensitivity. A dental professional can graft tissue to the exposed area, covering the root and stopping the pain. 

Root Canals

In severe cases, a root canal may be necessary to keep your tooth. When your dentist recommends a root canal, take it seriously. It’s usually the last resort to save a tooth before it needs to be extracted.

These procedures are more intensive than the other treatment options mentioned. In a root canal, the dentist removes inflamed or infected pulp. The tooth is then cleaned and disinfected before it’s filled and sealed.

Conclusion

Dentin exposure is a serious issue that can lead to significant oral health problems and pain. By learning about your tooth structure and the importance of preventing exposed dentin and nerve endings, you can avoid concerns like hypersensitivity to stimuli and tooth infection.

Keeping your tooth enamel healthy starts at home. With the proper oral hygiene routine and a custom-fit night guard from JS Dental Lab, you can get back on track to a healthy smile, inside and out.

Shop our full range of night guards to get started!

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