A sharp pain in the ear is a common sensation. It is not usually harmful, though it can cause concern.
The medical name for ear pain is “otalgia.” If the pain comes from within the ear, doctors call it primary otalgia. If it originates outside the ear, the term is secondary otalgia.
Below, we describe the many possible causes and their accompanying symptoms. We also outline ways to treat and prevent ear pain.
Below are some causes of a sharp pain in the ear. The pain may result from one or a combination of these factors.
Each ear contains a narrow tube called a eustachian tube. It helps regulate the pressure inside the ear so that it matches the air pressure outside, enabling the eardrum to function properly.
Sometimes there is an imbalance in pressure, which may result from a blocked eustachian tube or a change in air pressure or altitude.
External pressure changes can cause a type of temporary ear damage called ear barotrauma. The symptoms can include:
- a feeling of pressure within the ear
- a sharp or dull pain in the ear
- hearing loss
A sharp pain in the ear can sometimes result from an infection in the sinuses — a network of air-filled cavities in the skull.
There are three major types of sinus infection. They are:
- otitis, infection and inflammation of the ear, and the most common type of sinus infection
- mastoiditis, infection of the mastoid bone behind the ear
- sinusitis, inflammation of one or more paranasal sinuses, which are responsible for producing nasal mucus.
Sinus infections may be viral or bacterial.
This, an infection in the inner or the outer ear, is one of the most common causes of ear pain.
An infection of the inner ear affects the eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear to the back of the nasal cavity and the upper throat. This usually has a viral cause and is most common among children.
An infection of the outer ear affects the ear canal, the tube that connects the outer ear and eardrum. The infection usually involves direct irritation of the ear canal, such as from water or objects such as Q-tips. It is most common in adults.
Besides sharp pain, some possible symptoms of an ear infection include:
- difficulty hearing
- a feeling of pressure or fullness in the ear
- discharge from the ear
- itchiness or irritation in and around the ear
- a fever
- low energy
Temporomandibular disorder (TMD) is a musculoskeletal condition that primarily affects the joints that connect the jawbone to the skull.
People with TMD may experience sharp or dull jaw pain that radiates to the ears and temples.
Other possible symptoms of TMD include:
- clicking, popping, or grinding noises when moving the jaw
- difficulty opening the mouth fully
- the jaw locking when when opening the mouth
TMD is not usually serious and tends to get better on its own.
A foreign object in the ear
A foreign object may become stuck in the ear canal. Children, for example, prone to inserting objects into their ears out of curiosity.
A foreign object lodged in the ear can cause:
- sharp or dull pain
- drainage from the ear
- hearing loss
- an infection
A person attempting to remove the object at home could inadvertently push it farther into the ear canal. Instead, see a healthcare provider, who uses specially developed tools and procedures to remove these objects.
Depending on the cause of the ear pain, a person may also experience:
- a loss of hearing
- tinnitus, which involves perceiving noises that come from inside the ear
- a loss of balance
- facial nerve paralysis
A person may only experience sharp ear pain in certain situations, such as when yawning or swallowing. These motions open the eustachian tubes, changing the pressure within the ear.
Over-the-counter pain relief medication, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil) may help in the short term.
Otherwise, the best course of action depends on the cause and severity of the pain.
A doctor will work to establish the cause of TMD, and they may then recommend one or more of the following:
Over-the-counter pain relief medication can help ease minor to moderate ear pain and discomfort.
Also, holding a warm or cool compress against their ear may help alleviate the pain.
Some people use Q-tips to try to remove earwax, but this can actually push the wax back into the ear canal, causing problems. Anyone concerned about earwax buildups should see a doctor.
Ear infections are often responsible for a sharp pain in the ears, and these infections can be tricky to prevent. However, it can help to:
- not probe the ears with Q-tips or fingers
- prevent water and shampoo from entering the ears when showering or bathing
- use earplugs or a swimming cap when swimming
- treat eczema and other skin conditions
- treat any allergies to materials in hearing aids, if a person wears them
- avoid smoking and smoky environments
To prevent ear pain caused by changes in external pressure or altitude, try:
- chewing gum
- sucking on hard candy
- blowing gently through pinched nostrils and swallowing
These can help open up the eustachian tubes, equalizing the pressure inside and outside the ear.
Sharp ear pain may resolve on its own. But if the pain is severe or the ear is bleeding, the person needs immediate medical care.
If someone experiences any of the following, they should consult a doctor:
- an earache that persists for more than 3 days
- recurrent ear infections
- swelling around the ear
- fluid draining from the ear
- hearing loss or another change in hearing
- a severe sore throat
- a fever or chills
Also, if sharp ear pain occurs in someone with any of the following health issues, they should see a doctor:
Sharp ear pain commonly results from an infection or a temporary change in air pressure or altitude. In other cases, it may stem from TMD or a foreign object lodged in the ear.
The pain, though unpleasant, may be no cause for concern and resolve without treatment.
However, if the pain is severe or persistent, or if it accompanies any other symptoms, such as bleeding or discharge, see a doctor. Sharp pain in the ear can stem from health issues that require prompt medical attention.