How Tooth Enamal Protects Your Teeth

Many dental problems are the result the wearing away or exposure of tooth enamel.  When the enamel of a tooth gets worn away, the tooth becomes sensitive because it has lost its hard protective coating, exposing the layers under the enamel.  The layer immediately under the enamel is called the dentin, and it contains millions of tiny tubules that lead to nerve endings.  When these nerve endings become exposed, the tooth can develop sensitivity to normal sensation such as extremes of hot and cold, chewing, and brushing your teeth. Compared to tooth enamal, dentin is relatively soft and so chewing may become difficult in areas where enamel has been worn away. There are many ways in which tooth enamel may become prematurely worn:

Enamel Attrition

There is a certain amount of wear and enamel loss from everyday things such as speaking and eating.  This is normal, and your body is able to restore small amounts of damage to enamel through remineralization. Your saliva contains naturally occurring calcium, phosphate (which neutralizes acids), proteins, enzymes and cellular compounds in saliva which can fight infection, carry sugars, starches, acids away from your teeth, and help restore the hardness of your teeth.  There is some debate as to whether new enamel can actually be created or simply repaired (through a process called reminerlization), but studies have indicated that patients with better oral hygiene and better overall health have healthier teeth that can withstand normal wear and attrition.


Bruxism, or the grinding of teeth together, often at night as a patient sleeps, is a form of attrition and can cause an extreme cases of enamel attrition as well as malocclusion (a “bad bite” or poor fit between the top and bottom teeth) or TMJ problems (pain in the jaw joint, or other problems of the jaw joints).  A splint, or acrylic appliance fitted over the teeth to prevent contact between top and bottom teeth during grinding, may provide the answer for some patients.  Less expensive are over-the-counter mouth guards that may provide protection at a lower price, though their loose fit may cause them to be less effective.  Other suggested (though unproved) methods include relaxing the jaw by stretching the jaw and neck muscles, chewing crunchy carrots or broccoli before going to bed, chewing gum while experiencing daytime teeth grinding, or raising the head a little during sleep with a pillow. Stress reduction activities such as yoga or accupuncture have also been suggested to help patients with bruxism to relax (as stress has been suggested as a possible cause of bruxism).  Some of these techniques may help, and some may not.  Contact us today for an evaluation if you suffer from bruxism.

Enamel Abrasion

Abrasion of tooth enamel is caused by repeated contact with a foreign object.  Habits such as fingernail biting, chewing on pens or pencils, holding needles or pins between the teeth, cutting threads or fishline with your teeth, and so on are all abrasive to your teeth.  The damage may not be visible to the naked eye, but in extreme cases it can cause visble wear.  (Take the case of a patient who ate sunflowers seeds every night, cracking them open between the front teeth, eventually wearing a visible groove into a front tooth). Curbing habits that are abrasive to your teeth is a good first step towards healthier teeth.

Enamel Erosion

Erosion of tooth enamel is caused by chemical wear, typically an acid such as naturally-occuring citric acid found in lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruit.  Tthis means, of course, that these acids (which are corrosive to your teeth) are present in your morning glass of orange juice or grapefruit juice, as well as lemonade, limeaid, many mixed fruit juices, or sour candies.  Many soft drinks contain citric acid and other acids that, while great tasting, are bathing your teeth in corrosive acids.  Coffee and tea  can also be corrosive as well as staining to your teeth.  Thoroughly rinsing your mouth with fresh water after consuming acidic beverages will help prevent tooth decay.