Talking about dentin hypersensitivity

DATE: July 2020
AUTHOR: Louise Sinclair

Approximately one in eight adults in the United States is believed to suffer from dentin hypersensitivity, but many patients will not report their symptoms to their dentist. Instead, they will try to self-manage, tolerate or ignore their symptoms altogether, despite the potential impact on their quality of life. As dental practitioners, how can we ensure that our patients are not suffering in silence with this easily treatable condition?

Why don’t patients disclose dentin hypersensitivity?

First, it is important to understand the numerous reasons that patients may not disclose symptoms of dentin hypersensitivity. The patient may:

  • Suffer from dental anxiety or phobia, and may worry that disclosing their pain will lead to further treatment.

  • Believe that treatment is more difficult, invasive or expensive than it is.

  • Believe that sensitivity is normal – a natural consequence of ageing, for example.

  • Not be aware that dentin hypersensitivity can be treated.

  • Want to finish their appointment quickly.

  • Simply not think to mention sensitivity unless asked.

Encouraging patients to open up about dentin hypersensitivity

Pro-active patient communication is the key to breaking down barriers, so take the lead and raise the issue of dentin hypersensitivity first. Ask every patient if they experience symptoms, and pay special attention to your anxious patients, as they are more likely to downplay any problems.

Assure your patients that if they do experience dentin hypersensitivity, the solution is easy, affordable and completely non-invasive. You may want to recommend a specially formulated toothpaste such as Colgate Sensitive Pro Relief, which has been proven in randomized controlled clinical trials to significantly reduce dentin hypersensitivity when used twice daily.

Keep in mind that patients may use quite diverse vocabulary to describe their subjective perception and experience of pain, which can affect how they understand and answer your questions. Clearly identify the pain and its triggers with specific, unambiguous questions like:

“Do you ever feel a short, sharp pain in your teeth when you have hot or cold foods or drinks? How about when you eat something sweet? Or when you breathe in and air passes your teeth?”

Discuss how sensitivity affects the patient’s quality of life. They may avoid certain foods, drinks or activities because of sensitivity, and realizing that this does not have to be the case may be the encouragement they need to open up. Ask questions like:

“Are there any foods or drinks you can’t eat because of the pain?”

“Does the pain ever stop you from doing certain activities?”

“Do you ever find the pain distracting or upsetting?”

Finally, when patients do open up about dentin hypersensitivity symptoms, positively reinforce their willingness to discuss the issue. For example, thank them for bringing the problem to your attention and allowing you to help them, rather than questioning why they didn’t disclose their symptoms sooner. Approaching your patient as a positive and empathetic partner in their oral healthcare can build trust and break down communication barriers, particularly for patients with dental anxiety and phobia.