Brushing too hard with a toothbrush

Cavities and minor tooth-related issues are often easy for a person to ignore. Pain is often limited, or you may not feel any pain at all in these cases. However, if you have an exposed tooth nerve, it will be a pain that alerts you that something is seriously wrong, and you should book an emergency visit.

After all, your tooth nerves are not meant to be exposed to air, food or anything.

Determining why your tooth nerve is exposed requires the help of a dentist. At Lighthouse Dental, we’ll perform an exam to identify the cause of the root exposure and then take corrective action to stop the pain.

Recession and exposed nerves

What are Exposed Tooth Nerves?

We use “nerve” and “tooth root” interchangeably. If you have an exposed tooth nerve, this means that the root of the tooth is exposed. If you have healthy teeth and gums, the root or “legs of the tooth” will extend to the tooth’s pulp and be covered from the world.

However, multiple causes can lead to the tooth’s nerve becoming exposed and causing pain.

The pain is often described by our patients as:

  • Sharp pain in the tooth
  • Extreme sensitivity

You may experience pain when you’re eating, brushing your gums or at other times. Due to the high intensity of the pain, it’s impossible to ignore an exposed nerve for long. A call to an emergency dentist is the only way to help resolve the pain in the long term.

However, you can purchase sugar-free gum and cover the tooth with the gum.

While gum may be a poor replacement for your natural tooth or healthy gums, it can provide the temporary covering you need to reduce or relieve the pain in the short term. With that said, exposed nerves in dentistry will not resolve on their own.

You will need to go to the dentist. Otherwise, the pain will become increasingly worse or stay at a level that many patients describe as being unbearable.

Causes of Tooth Nerve Exposure

Unfortunately, if you have an exposed nerve, it’s too late to reverse course without dental intervention. However, knowing why your tooth’s nerve is exposed can help you prevent it from occurring again in the future.

The main causes of nerve exposure include:

Gum Disease  

Gum disease is one of the leading causes of exposed nerves in dentistry, and it’s estimated that 47% of adults over 30 have some form of gum disease. If you don’t work to stop gum disease, it can cause infection.

The infection occurs because bacteria will make their way between your teeth and gums.

If allowed to persist, the infection will lead to the gums receding and the exposure of your roots. Following good oral hygiene practices is the best way to prevent gum disease. You'll want to follow a daily oral hygiene routine of brushing two or three times a day and flossing at least once.

Regular dental cleaning will also help us remove any of the bacteria that we can and identify gum disease in the early stages. If the gums are treated early on, we can often prevent gum disease progression and the eventual gum recession that follows.

Anterior photo if recessed teeth
Gum disease recession

Receding Gums

Receding gums of 3mm or more are found in 23% of adults, meaning nearly 1-in-4 people are at a high risk of tooth root exposure. The causes of receding gums include:

  • Age, which naturally causes gums to recede
  • Aggressive brushing
  • Mouth breathing or sleep apnea
  • Smoking
  • Genetics

Scheduling routine dental cleanings is one way to prevent receding gums from occurring. We can identify issues with your gums during our exam and take steps to help the gums in any way that we can.

In most cases, if infection is a factor in your gums receding, antibiotics will be prescribed to stop the infection and prevent the gums from worsening. Special mouthwashes may be able to help, too.

However, in the most serious of cases, surgery may be necessary.

Smoking and Tobacco Use

Smoking and any form of tobacco use will have a major negative impact on your dental health. In fact, smoking greatly increases the risk of you developing:

  • Gum disease
  • Receding gums


Smoking causes an increase in bacterial plaque production. On top of the increase in plaque, blood flow to the gums will slow and increase the risk of gum infection. Lower blood flow to your gums will make it more difficult for you to heal from gum infection.

The good news is that stopping smoking can reverse these risks and put you at the same risk level as a non-smoker for infected gums.

If your gums are infected, quitting smoking and tobacco use will restore the blood flow to the gums and help move the healing process along.

Lower anterior cavities
Smoking induced cavities

Teeth Grinding

Teeth grinding is something many people develop, but a lot of people don’t even realize that they have this bad habit. Grinding occurs when most people sleep, so unless you have a significant other who nudges you awake, you might not even realize you grind your teeth.

Over time, if you don’t start wearing a nightguard or correct the issue in some other way, you’ll wear down your teeth and gums.

The pressure will slowly cause the gums and teeth to wear, and before you know it, you’ll have exposed nerves that are causing you intense pain. If you know that you grind your teeth, you can give us a call to schedule an appointment.

Our team will:

  • Examine your teeth and gums for wear or damage
  • Recommend the best solution to stop tooth grinding

Bruxism, or teeth grinding, can have many causes, including certain medications, stress and anxiety. For most people, everyday stress and anxiety are at the root cause of their teeth-grinding habit.

If you can find ways to alleviate these two triggers, you’ll lower your risk of grinding.

Trauma to the Tooth

Trauma is one of the many causes of an exposed root that you can only protect against so much. If you play sports, wearing a mouthguard is one of the best ways to lower your risk of damaging your teeth while playing.

However, tooth trauma can occur due to:

  • Sporting injuries
  • Car accidents
  • Trip and falls

Accidents and incidents like these can cause a tooth to chip or break. You can also experience gum damage or other serious dental injury from trauma that leaves the root exposed.

Brushing Too Hard

Brushing twice or three times per day is what nearly every dental expert recommends. However, many people don’t know how to brush properly. It’s important to take a gentle approach when brushing.

Your gums are sensitive, and brushing too hard can do one of two things:

  • Damage to the tooth’s enamel
  • Cause gum inflammation
Woman with curly hair holding a toothbrush

Over time, if the same hard brushing habits are maintained, they can lead to the root of the tooth being exposed. Soft brushing works best to avoid this cause of exposed nerve. You can also invest in an electric toothbrush or something similar, which will thoroughly clean the teeth and remind you not to apply too much pressure.

Note: Maintaining your oral hygiene is the answer to 99% of tooth-related problems and pain. If you simply brush and floss regularly, you can avoid the risk of an exposed nerve.

Treating Exposed Nerves

There are many causes of exposed tooth nerves, and there are also many treatment options. We'll need to examine you in our office to determine the best treatment for you. However, the most common treatments we perform are:

  • Gum disease: Our go-to option is to perform a professional dental cleaning to understand the extent of your gum disease. Next, we’ll perform dental scaling and root planing. Antibiotics may be necessary if you have an infection. Using these methods, we can help restore your gum health and allow them to heal.
  • Grinding: Lifestyle changes, such as finding a way to de-stress, can help stop tooth grinding. However, in the meantime, we recommend a fitted mouthguard. A professionally fitted mouthguard will fit better and help prevent tooth grinding.
  • Trauma: If you have trauma, we can apply dentin sealers or perform other procedures to help protect the root. Since every trauma is different, we’ll need to examine you in person to determine the best treatment for you.
  • Infection: An infection may require us to perform a root canal. A root canal is an intensive dental procedure in which we will clean out the infection and often put a crown on the tooth.

If you’re brushing too hard or even have misaligned teeth, you may experience exposed nerves. In both cases, there is help. Retraining yourself to brush lightly is an easy fix, but with misaligned teeth, we may recommend:

  • Braces
  • Aligners
  • Implants

Exposed nerves are painful and will require you to call an emergency dentist. Our team is available to help you through this difficult time in our dental office in Langley. Don't hesitate to call us for any dental emergencies you experience. We'll add you to our schedule as soon as possible to get to the root cause of the problem and stop the pain from progressing further.

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Dr. Gurpreet Sidhu - Dentist at Lighthouse Dental Centre and Blue Water Dental
Dr. Gurpreet Sidhu

With nearly two decades of experience, Dr. Sidhu enjoys helping his patients learn about dentistry. Knowledge is meant to be improved, challenged and shared.

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