Dental Care

Worn Tooth Enamel and Protective Actions

Worn tooth enamel can give rise to various dental problems.  Enamel forms the thin, semi-translucent outer shell of your teeth. 

It is extremely hard; in fact, tooth enamel is the hardest, most mineralized tissue found anywhere in the human body. 

Tooth enamel plays an extremely important role in protecting your teeth from a variety of hazards, including the daily wear and tear caused by chewing, biting, crunching and grinding. 

It also insulates your teeth from painful temperature extremes which can be caused by hot and cold foods and beverages, as well as the corrosive effects of various acids and chemicals.

However, tooth enamel's high mineral content also makes it susceptible to erosion through a demineralization process.  Often, this process causes dental cavities (known in the dental profession as dental caries). 

Tooth enamel erosion can be caused by several factors, but one of the most significant (and common) involves the ingestion of acids in foods and beverages.  Sugar in the diet is another common cause.

Tooth enamel covers and protects the dentin in your teeth.  Dentin is not as hard or resistant to damage as tooth enamel, and when the enamel of a tooth becomes worn or eroded, the tooth's dentin loses a great deal of its protection. 

Once the tooth enamel is damaged or worn, microscopic tubes within the dentin allow sweet, hot or cold foods and beverages to stimulate nerves within the affected tooth.  The result can be a tooth that is highly sensitive and extremely painful when sweet, hot or cold foods and beverages are ingested.

Causes of Worn Tooth Enamel

As mentioned above, several things can cause eroded or worn tooth enamel.  They can be grouped into a few loose categories:

Attrition - a gradual loss of tooth enamel through "wear and tear."  Natural tooth-on-tooth friction occurs during normal eating and speaking.  Although this friction might cause a small bit of enamel loss, it is usually not significant. 

However, excessively worn enamel can be caused by bruxism, the scientific name for clenching or grinding your teeth.  Bruxism often occurs involuntarily during sleep, and many teeth-grinders aren't even aware they are doing it.

Abrasion - a foreign object causes the tooth enamel to wear away.  Some examples include brushing your teeth too forcefully or too long, improper flossing, and chewing on hard objects such as your fingernails, pencils or pens.

Erosion - the chemical wearing down of tooth enamel.  Tooth enamel erosion is usually caused by some type of acid.  Overexposure to citric acid is one common way this occurs. 

Most people realize citric acid is one of the components of citrus fruit and citrus juices, but it is also an ingredient in many soft drinks such as lemonade and soda, as well as certain types of candies. 

Many carbonated beverages also contain other corrosive acids which can damage tooth enamel, as do coffee and tea.

Even candies which do not contain citric acid can create problems because of their sugar content.  If the sugar is not promptly removed from your teeth by brushing and flossing, the bacteria which feed on the sugar produce acids which can eat away at your tooth enamel.

People suffering from bulimia expose their teeth to very strong stomach acids when they induce vomiting. 

Heartburn and acid reflux disease (GERD) can also bring these highly corrosive stomach acids up into the mouth, where they can then erode the tooth enamel. 

Binge drinking, which often causes vomiting, can have the same result.

Dry mouth or a low saliva volume can also contribute to tooth enamel erosion.  One of saliva's functions is to help prevent tooth decay by neutralizing acids and washing away food remnants in your mouth.

Finally, certain medications and supplements have a high acid content.  Common examples include aspirin and vitamin C.  This acid can also erode your tooth enamel.

Occasionally exposing your teeth to most of these acids will not usually create a problem, but repeated exposure to high levels of corrosive acids can cause premature enamel wear. 

Prevention for Worn Tooth Enamel

Unlike other tissues, your body will not be able to repair worn tooth enamel.  Once you experience loss of tooth enamel, the damage is permanent because enamel has no living cells. 

Although modern dental technology can offer some forms of tooth enamel repair, it comes at a relatively high cost.

Prevention of tooth enamel damage is therefore essential for the long-term health of your teeth. 

If you eat or drink a highly acidic food or beverage, at a minimum you should rinse your mouth immediately afterward.  This will reduce the amount of time the acids have to damage your tooth enamel.

And above all practice good daily oral hygiene.


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