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Pain in the ear and jaw can range from a mild ache to intense pain. Numerous conditions can cause ear and jaw pain, including mouth or ear infections, joint injuries, and tooth grinding.
In this article, we discuss the most common causes of ear and jaw pain. We also suggest home remedies to try before seeing a doctor and explain the medical treatment options.
Numerous conditions can cause ear and jaw pain.
It can be difficult for a doctor to diagnose the cause based on these symptoms alone, so they will take into account risk factors and recent history. For example, a person who has not been to the dentist in many years and has a history of tooth pain may have a cavity.
The following are some common causes of ear and jaw pain:
Problems with the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) can cause a wide range of symptoms, including, most prominently, ear and jaw pain. Some people also get headaches, eye pain, and even sinus pressure. Several conditions and factors can cause TMJ pain, including:
- grinding the teeth
- problems with the alignment of the jaw or teeth
- muscle injuries
Although TMJ can be painful, home treatment often helps manage or even eliminate symptoms.
The sternocleidomastoid is a thick muscle that extends from just under the ear down to the collarbone. Injuries to this muscle can cause jaw and ear pain, as well as sinus pain, eye pressure, and other symptoms that a person might mistake for signs of a cold or infection.
When a person has these symptoms but has no injuries and no other signs of infection — such as a fever or runny nose — an injury to the sternocleidomastoid may be the culprit. A doctor can rule out other causes, such as infections of the middle or inner ear, by carrying out a physical examination.
A tooth abscess can sometimes cause pain that radiates to the ear or jaw.
In most cases, a person will also have swelling in the gums or tender spots in and around the teeth. Sometimes, the pain in the teeth disappears and then reappears as pain in the ear or jaw, which may signal that the infection is spreading.
An ear infection can cause intense pain in, around, or behind the ear. Sometimes, this pain radiates to the jaw, sinuses, or teeth.
In most cases, viruses or bacteria cause ear infections. Ear infections can also happen when water or other fluids build up in the ear.
A person with an ear infection may have other symptoms, such as fever, congestion, and low energy. The pain of an ear infection can be intense and may get rapidly worse without treatment.
Untreated ear infections can spread to other parts of the body. Some people develop an infection called mastoiditis, which is an infection in the mastoid bone near the ear. When this happens, a person may experience swelling close to the ear, hearing problems, or a high fever. Severe cases of mastoiditis can be life threatening and require immediate treatment.
An injury, such as a broken jaw or a strain or sprain in the surrounding muscles, could cause jaw pain that radiates to the ear. If a person notices ear and jaw pain shortly after a fall, a car accident, or a blow to the head, they may have a jaw injury that needs medical treatment.
Grinding the teeth at night places stress on the muscles of the face, neck, and jaw. The tension can cause pain in the jaw, in the ears, and on the front or side of the face. Some people may also damage their teeth, slowly grinding them down or even breaking them.
It is safe to treat ear and jaw pain at home when it is not due to an underlying infection or a serious injury. People can try the following strategies:
- Sleep with a mouth guard to prevent tooth grinding. Different types of mouth guard are available for purchase online. If the mouth guard helps but does not cure the symptoms, a person might need a custom mouth guard from a dentist.
- Try applying heat or ice to the injury, as this can ease pain and promote healing. Learn how to make a heating pad here.
- Gently massage the jaw to reduce muscle tension.
- Take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as aspirin or ibuprofen.
- Try stretching the sternocleidomastoid by tilting the ear down toward the shoulder and holding it there for 5–10 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
- Stretch the jaw muscles by opening the mouth and jutting out the lower jaw, then holding this position for 5–10 seconds. Next, try moving the teeth forward and back and from side to side in a circular motion.
Infections almost always require antibiotics. Sometimes, a person needs other medical treatments, particularly in the case of serious infections, such as mastoiditis.
If home remedies fail, medical treatment options include:
- orthodontic treatment to align the teeth and jaw
- TMJ surgery to reduce TMJ pain
- a custom fitted device to prevent tooth grinding
- mental health treatment, for when a person grinds their teeth because of anxiety
- prescription medication for arthritis
- physical therapy to treat jaw injuries or manage arthritis more effectively
- treatment for cavities, such as fillings, root canals, or crowns
- stronger pain relievers for TMJ disorders or arthritis
It is best to see a doctor for ear and jaw pain if:
- there are signs of an infection, such as fever or swelling
- the pain appears immediately after an injury
- the gums are swollen or the teeth hurt
- symptoms do not improve within a few days of home treatment
- a doctor prescribes antibiotics or other treatment, but treatment does not help
- ear or jaw pain becomes unbearable
- a baby or young child with ear and jaw pain does not stop crying
Ear and jaw pain can be extremely unpleasant. Prompt medical treatment can help, even when there is an underlying chronic condition.
If home treatment fails, a person should speak to their doctor. There is no reason to suffer through the pain or delay treatment.