11 Reasons Why Your Ear & Jaw Hurt

woman with ear and jaw pain

Do you frequently experience ear and jaw pain? Symptoms of TMJ disorder? Your jaw and ear are closely related to your TMJ, which can sometimes make discomfort or pain difficult to distinguish one from the other. But TMJ/TMD isn’t the only cause of ear and jaw pain. There are a number of different conditions you’ll want to rule out before finding the best treatment option. Understanding what makes each of these diagnoses different from one another will help you get effective relief as quickly as possible.

Common Symptoms

Your TMJ, jaw, ears, sinuses, and facial muscles are all closely interrelated. It’s common to experience what we call “referred pain”.[1] Referred pain is when one part of your body – such as your ear or a tooth – is hurting, but the source of the discomfort is actually coming from someplace else.

A common example is having an earache when the tightness and swelling is radiating from your TMJ. Even though it feels like it’s your ear that’s hurting, the pain is coming from somewhere else.

Another example is when you have a tooth that hurts (especially an upper canine/eyetooth) but there’s nothing wrong with your tooth at all. Instead, it’s the sinus pressure from a nasal infection, pressing down on the root of your tooth and making you feel like you have a toothache.

Although ear and jaw pain are closely linked if you pay attention to other symptoms and underlying factors you can more easily distinguish what’s going on with your health. That way you know which type of dental or medical provider to see and get the quickest relief for your pain.

Common Causes

1) TMJ Disorders

Symptoms

Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) causes popping, clicking, headaches, limited range of motion, jaw and ear pain, neck pain, and may even radiate into your face or back.[2]

Treatment

Talk to your dentist about a bite splint, orthodontics, Botox injectables, massage, or physical therapy. The best treatment will depend on the severity of your TMJ disorder and how much it affects your life on a day-to-day basis.

2) Osteoarthritis

Symptoms

The most common type of arthritis to affect your TMJ is osteoarthritis. Typically, it will cause damage to the cartilage inside of your joint and make your jaw feel too stiff to move up and down. Damage will be visible on your X-ray.[3]

Treatment

Your physician or rheumatologist will need to work with you on a care plan. In the meantime, ask your dentist to monitor joint damage to determine if surgery is needed. A splint may be recommended. Follow the home care relief instructions mentioned further down.

3) Sinusitis

Symptoms

Sinus pressure, infections, and seasonal allergies can fool you into thinking you have a toothache or migraine. The pressure from the inside presses against tooth roots and other parts of your face, giving off that referred pain sensation.[4] If you rock or bob your head, you’ll probably be able to tell something is going on.

Treatment

Work with your MD to get rid of any underlying sinus infections with the appropriate medication. Ask about a preventative allergy regimen.

4) Bruxism (Teeth Grinding)

Symptoms

Clenching and grinding can happen while you’re sleeping, focusing on something, or just feeling stressed out. Usually, you’ll notice tension in your face and forehead, along with ear and jaw pain.

Treatment

A nightguard or daytime bite splint are a must-have! They’ll place a protective barrier between your teeth so that your TMJ doesn’t fully engage. In the meantime, tell yourself to rest with your lips together but your teeth apart. Side note: Botox may also be an option!

5) Rheumatoid Or Psoriatic Arthritis

Symptoms

Diseases of the joint can cause physical changes in and around your TMJ. Your dentist may need to take a panoramic X-ray to determine the extent of bone damage.

Treatment

Your physician and/or rheumatologist will need to work with you to create a prescription and nutritional plan that helps prevent additional bone damage. Work with your dentist to determine a physical therapy plan or determine if surgery is necessary.[5]

6) Swimmer’s Ear

Symptoms

Spending lots of time at the pool lately? After a few swim sessions of dunking your head under water, you may start to experience a sharp, painful stabbing sensation in one or both ears.

Treatment

Ask your doctor for a prescription pain reliever or antibiotic if the ear is red and swollen. Use ear plugs and preventative drops to avoid swimmer’s ear from flaring back up.[6]

7) Toothache/Dental Issues

Symptoms

If you have a tooth infection such as decay or gum disease, it can hurt in the involved tooth or even the tooth next to it. It’s the same with dental abscesses. If you’re clenching and grinding your teeth, the pressure may strain the small ligaments around your tooth roots as well. [7]

Treatment

See your dentist for a formal diagnosis. They may recommend a filling, root canal, gum therapy, or just a night guard! Don’t wait, because it usually gets worse and more expensive to treat the longer you do.

8) Sternocleidomastoid Pain

Symptoms

Your sternocleidomastoid muscle is one that runs from your ear to your collarbone. If it’s tense, you can feel pressure in your neck or near the ends where it attaches to your bones (including by your ear).[8]

Treatment

Treat your muscle pain similar to other soft tissue injuries. Use rest, massage, warm compresses, and physical therapy to ease tension. Watch your posture! You could be slumping at the desk or sitting in a way that causes repetitive muscle strain.

9) Jaw Injuries

Symptoms

You’ll likely experience pain when you’re opening and closing your mouth, or see a limited range of motion (where you can’t open as wide.) Chewing may be painful. A jaw injury is usually something you see in athletic accidents or an automobile wreck.

Treatment

Physical therapy exercises, rest, massage, a warm compress, and pain relievers work best. Avoid eating any firm foods for several days. Surgery is reserved for severe cases.

10) Earwax

Symptoms

If you have a heavy amount of earwax that’s causing pain, you’ll probably also experience signs of hearing loss. Or at least have a hard time catching what other people are saying.

Treatment

Do not attempt to clean the ear wax out on your own. If it’s severe enough to make your ear hurt, let a professional like an ENT or MD do it for you. They may recommend an OTC kit to help dilute the residue so that it drips out naturally.[9]

11) Air Pressure

Symptoms

pressure from altitude changes can sometimes be severe enough to make your ear hurt.

Treatment

Remember how your mom used to tell you to pop your ears on a car ride or flight in a plane? The Move your jaw up and down, side to side, or chew a piece of gum for a few seconds. Or better yet, hold your nose and try to blow out of it.

When To See A Doctor 

Any time you’re experiencing discomfort or pain that’s severe enough to interfere with your daily routine, you need to see a doctor. Even if it’s not too bad but it’s coming and going over several days at a time, it’s best to talk to some type of a medical provider.

If you have a dental appointment planned, your dentist could be one of the best providers to speak to. Especially if the pain is close to your teeth, jaw or TMJ. However, if there’s obvious redness or infection around your ear, your best bet is to see your MD or ENT.

Even if your jaw and ear pain isn’t related to something dental in nature, your dentist can rule out potential factors during your routine checkup and then refer you to the appropriate medical provider.

Once you schedule an appointment, your doctor or dentist will likely run through a series of questions related to several of the above-mentioned conditions to rule out any specific red flags. But at that point, the exam will require looking at and feeling your facial features or inside of your ear/nose/throat to see what else is going on.

Pain Relief At Home

Since inflammation is usually one of the most common sources of pain and discomfort, taking an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication (like ibuprofen/Motrin) is a safe way to get some relief. Of course, always take it as directed. Alternate a warm and cold compress every 20 minutes to keep swelling at bay.[10]

Another thing to do is rest your joint. Don’t eat any hard foods, chew gum, or clench your teeth. It’s important to relax the muscles around your jaw. It doesn’t hurt to use your hands to massage your facial muscles. There are even physical therapy exercises you can do to help ease tension around your face and TMJ.

Since stress can make us tense up or clench our teeth, our lifestyles may also be playing into ear and jaw pain. Do your best to relax. Go for a walk. Take a warm bath. Listen to relaxing music. Quit your job (just kidding). Do what you can to put your well-being first.

Remember – prolonged discomfort and pain isn’t normal, and it isn’t something you should try to treat on your own. Your body is talking to you and telling you that something is wrong.

Overcoming Ear And Jaw Pain

Sinus pressure, headaches, ear, and jaw pain can all be interrelated. Sometimes it’s because of clenching and grinding your teeth, other times it’s due to underlying TMJ disorder. By ruling out underlying factors, you can do so detective work to find out if what hurts is actually what hurts, or if it’s some type of referred pain. If home care techniques don’t help, it’s time to talk to your dentist or doctor about finding the true cause and solution of your discomfort.