Loss of the enamel layer that covers our teeth results in sensitive teeth and raised risk of cavities, pulp inflammation and other dental diseases. Now, scientists have produced a new biocompatible material that potentially rebuilds worn enamel, reduces tooth sensitivity and is much longer-lasting than current treatments.

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Loss of tooth enamel exposes the softer, porous dentine underneath, making the tooth more sensitive to hot and cold.

Chun-Pin Lin, a professor of dentistry at National Taiwan University, and colleagues report how they developed the new material, which they tested on dogs, in the journal ACS Nano.

Tooth sensitivity due to loss of enamel is one of the most common dental problems. It not only causes sharp pain and anxiety, but it can herald more serious dental problems.

Loss of tooth enamel exposes a layer of softer, porous material called dentine, which is full of thousands of tiny channels or tubules that go deep into the pulp of the tooth where the nerves lie. When dentine tubules are exposed, heat and cold pass more easily to the underlying nerves.

Current treatments - such as special toothpastes incorporating sealants - work by blocking the tubules at the exposed dentine surface. But these seals do not last as they get worn away with chewing and brushing.

New material generates a 'biomimetic crystalline dentin barrier'

In their paper, Prof. Lin and his team describe how they made and tested a reliable, fast-acting biocompatible material containing the main elements found in teeth: calcium and phosphorous.

Applied to teeth in the form of a paste, the biomaterial seals the exposed dentinal tubules to produce what the team describes as a "biomimetic crystalline dentin barrier."

When they tested it on dogs' teeth, the team found the new material plugged the exposed dentinal tubules more deeply than other treatments.

To make the material, the team produced a silica-based template containing nano-sized calcium carbonate particles and mixed it with phosphoric acid (H3PO4). This enabled calcium and phosphate ions to work their way deep into the dentinal tubules and crystallize into various forms of calcium phosphate.

Tests on the dogs' teeth revealed "significant crystal growth" and "no pulp irritation after 70 days," note the authors. They conclude that the new biomaterial "holds great promise for treating exposed dentin by growing biomimetic crystals within dentinal tubules," and may serve "as both a catalyst and carrier in the repair or regeneration of dental hard tissue."

Funds from Taiwan's National Science Council and National Taiwan University Hospital helped finance the study.

A 2008 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that over 26% of adults aged 18-64 in the US had experienced toothache or sensitive teeth in the preceding 6 months. Women were more affected than men, and the 18-34 group was more affected than the 55-64 group.

Wear and tear through brushing too hard can cause sensitive teeth

One of the causes of sensitive teeth is wear and tear through brushing too hard, using a hard-bristled brush. This can wear down the enamel and expose the dentine.

To reduce tooth sensitivity, brush with a soft-bristled brush, taking care around the gums so as not to damage or remove gum tissue. Also, floss regularly and use interdental brushes. The point is to gently dislodge food debris and plaque. You can also use a toothpaste designed for sensitive teeth.

It is also important to visit a dentist regularly and ask them about correct oral hygiene.

Many of us are aware that poor dental hygiene can lead to tooth decay and gum disease, but it has also been linked to more serious consequences, such as Alzheimer's disease, pancreatic cancer and heart disease. To learn more, read our spotlight feature on the potential serious consequences of poor dental hygiene.