According to the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD), approximately 40 million Americans are familiar with tooth sensitivity. This means they feel a short, sharp pain followed by an ache. But the causes of sensitive teeth and steps you can take to find relief often vary from person to person.

Common Causes of Tooth Sensitivity

Lifestyle habits often cause or contribute to tooth sensitivity. One harmful habit, for instance, is aggressively brushing your teeth with a hard-bristled toothbrush, says Eugene Gamble, MClinDent, a periodontics specialist and oral surgeon in the United Kingdom. If you brush too hard you can wear away the outer layer of enamel that protects your teeth, exposing the part of your teeth that contains nerve endings, he says. If exposed, the nerve endings in the layer of teeth tissue known as dentin will send pain signals when stimulated.

Clenching or grinding your teeth can wear away the enamel too, exposing nerves in the teeth and making them more sensitive to changes in temperature and sugary or sticky foods, says Jordan Taylor, DMD, a dentist with Stonecreek Dental Care in Huntsville, Alabama.

Aging can play a role in tooth sensitivity, too. As you get older and your gums recede, the cementum layer below your gum line, which helps attach your tooth to the bone, can wear away. Without cementum, your teeth are more exposed and can become more sensitive, Dr. Gamble says. Gum disease can also cause your gums to recede and result in the nerves becoming more exposed, Dr. Taylor says.

In addition, acid reflux can contribute to sensitive teeth. “Stomach acid is highly acidic, and if you eat foods that cause acid reflux and constantly have stomach acid in your mouth, it can wear down the enamel on your teeth,” Taylor says. “Some of the worst cases of tooth sensitivity occur in people with acid reflux.”

Another possible contributor to sensitive teeth is dental work, such as having a tooth filled. “You may have some sensitivity after getting a filling because your tooth is getting used to a new material that’s not natural,” Taylor says. “Some people also experience sensitivity from procedures like professional whitening,” adds Victoria Veytsman, DDS, of Cosmetic Dental Studios in New York City.

Tips for Managing Sensitive Teeth

The good news about tooth sensitivity is that it typically gets better with time, although progress can be slow, Taylor says. “If the tooth is alive and healthy, it will slowly retract the nerve over time and build secondary dentin as extra insulation from the inside out.”