While kids’ ear pain is typically caused by ear infections, in adults it’s often the result of other problems — some of which may not originate in the ear, experts say.
“Most of the time when your ear hurts, it’s not your ear’s fault,” says Oliver F. Adunka, M.D., director of the Division of Otology, Neurotology, and Cranial Base Surgery at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. “It’s usually an issue somewhere else that is referred to the ear.”
A visit to an ear, nose and throat doctor (an otolaryngologist) can help identify what’s causing your pain, and it’s often an easy fix, Adunka says.
But if you experience blood or drainage coming from your ear, ringing sounds, or sudden dizziness or hearing loss, those may be signs of a serious medical issue and you should contact your health care provider.
Here are some common causes of ear pain and what you need to know about each.
1. A jaw disorder (or toothache)
If you experience ear pain that’s sharp, “like someone is stabbing your ear,” it may be caused by a temporomandibular disorder (TMD), Adunka says. Also called TMJ because it affects the temporomandibular joint that connects your jaw to your skull, the disorder can develop if you grind your teeth or if arthritis wears away the cartilage around your jaw joint, he explains. Recent orthodontic work can also trigger TMJ pain.
Because the jawbone is near a major nerve that radiates back to your ear, the pain often manifests as repeated episodes of ear pain and tenderness. “If it’s on one side, then goes to the other side and comes back, it’s usually TMD,” Adunka says.
If your doctor suspects a jaw problem, he or she will probably refer you to a dentist, who may fit you with a mouth guard or recommend other treatments.
Toothache pain can also radiate up to your ear. As with TMD, a visit to your dentist can help address ear pain caused by a toothache.