The pain behind the ears or in the ears can be very uncomfortable and irritating. It can range from mild, dull, to sharp and severe. There are numerous conditions that can lead to pain behind the ears.
Most people who are experiencing this pain usually take medication to alleviate the pain. However, pain in the ears should be checked by an expert before taking any kind of medication. Without proper diagnosis and treatment, the pain can get worse and lead to severe complications.
A person may have a fever if the pain is caused by an ear infection, and this condition requires medical treatment right away. Without the correct medication, the infection can spread to other areas of the body. With the infection close to the brain, this infection can be perilous. In addition to fever, pain behind the ears can be accompanied by swelling of the lymphatic glands, headache, and others.
Causes of Pain Behind the Ears
If you are experiencing pain behind the ears, it is important that you seek medical attention immediately to get proper treatment. Following are the most common causes.
1. Otitis Media
Otitis media or an ear infection is the most common cause of pain in the ears or behind the ears. Children and adults usually experience this ear condition, which affects the middle ear (air-filled space behind the eardrum and contains the ear’s vibrating bones). Ear infections usually clear up on their own. Treatments may start with monitoring the cause and controlling the pain.
Signs and symptoms of otitis media may also include:
- Pulling at an ear
- Crying more than normal (children)
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty hearing
- Fluid discharge from the ears
Otitis media in infants and severe conditions commonly need antibiotics to remove the infection. However, severe and persistent infection and fluids may lead to an impaired hearing, spread of infection, speech delays and tearing of the eardrum. If you have an ear infection, visit your doctor immediately.
The mastoid bone, which is located behind the ear, consists of air spaces that assist in draining the middle ear. Bacterial infection and inflammation of the mastoid cells lead to mastoiditis. This may result from an untreated ear infection or otitis media. The bacteria from the middle ear, due to ear infection, can spread to the mastoid bone. This condition may affect children and adults.
Mastoiditis can also result from the blockage of the drainage, due to cholesteatoma, a type of cyst in the middle ear. Signs and symptoms of mastoiditis may include:
- Drainage from the ears
- Irritability and lethargy
- Swelling of the earlobe, redness behind the ear
- Drooping or bulging of the ear
Your doctor will check the ear to see the presence of infection. Other tests may also be required to confirm the diagnosis, such as Ear culture (removal of the fluid and substances), blood tests, X-ray, MRI and CT scan. Chronic mastoiditis is treated with regular ear cleanings by a doctor, eardrops, and oral antibiotics. Surgery may be required if the treatments are not effective.
3. Temporomandibular Joint Disorders
Another cause that results in pain behind the ears is a temporomandibular joint disorder. The Temporomandibular joint connects the jaw to the temporal bones of the skull. This allows you to move your jaw properly so you can chew, yawn and talk. Problems with the jaw and its muscles caused by an injury can result in TMD or TMJ. Other causes include arthritis, clenching or grinding the teeth, stress, and movement of the disc between the ball and socket of the joint.
The signs and symptoms of TMD or TMJ include:
- Pain in the face, jaw and around the ear when chewing, speaking or opening the mouth
- Pain or tenderness in the shoulders and neck
- Locked Jaw
- Clicking or grating sounds when opening the mouth or chewing
- Uncomfortable chewing
- Tired feeling or swelling of the face
If you develop one or more of these symptoms, visit your doctor immediately. You may also have other conditions such as gum disease, sinus problems, arthritis, or tooth decay. Proper diagnosis of the problem is needed for you to have proper treatment.
4. Swimmer’s Ear
The swimmer’s ear, also known as otitis externa, is an outer ear canal infection. This is brought on by water that is stuck in the ear after swimming. It creates a damp environment that leads to the growth of bacteria. Other factors that lead to swimmer’s ear include cotton swabs, putting fingers inside the ear or other objects. Damaging the thin skin lining the ear canal allows bacteria to enter.
Signs and symptoms of mild swimmer’s ear include itchiness in the ear canal, mild redness inside the ear, mild discomfort and drainage of odorless fluid. For moderate and advanced progression, you may experience:
- Intense itching
- Excessive discharge of fluid or pus
- Decreased hearing
- Swelling in the lymph nodes
- Swelling of the outer ear and severe pain
If you are experiencing any symptoms of swimmer’s ear, go to your doctor immediately. The common treatment for swimmer’s ear is eardrops. Advanced stage of infection will require further testing and more medications.
5. Blocked Eustachian Tube
The Eustachian tube connects the middle ear to the back of the throat. This tube helps in draining fluid from the ears and keeps the air pressure at the accurate level. The tubes open momentarily when you yawn or swallow to allow the air in to ensure that the level of pressure outside the ears is the same as the pressure in the middle ears. If the external pressure is too high, it results in ear pain or hearing problems.
Sinus infection, allergies and cold can block the Eustachian tubes, which leads to changes in the level of pressure. Fluid may also gather in your middle ear and result in pain. The ear pain can be experienced as the pressure changes, such as driving up the mountains, flying in an airplane, or diving.
Blocked Eustachian tubes can be treated with simple exercises. You can also close your mouth, hold your nose, and blow gently like you are blowing your nose. You may also chew a gum to correct the pressure. If these do not help, your doctor may suggest over-the-counter medicines, decongestants or antibiotics.
Earwax is essential in our body, as it a natural part of our defenses. It cleans and protects the ear canal by trapping dirt. It also slows down the growth of bacteria. Ceruminosis or earwax blockage occurs when earwax builds up in the ear or becomes too solid to drain naturally. Signs and symptoms of ceruminosis or earwax blockage may include:
- Ear pain
- A feeling of fullness in the ear
- Noises in the ear
- Dizziness and cough
- Hearing problem
Go to your doctor if you are experiencing any signs or symptoms. It may indicate another health condition. Do not remove the earwax yourself. Wax removal should also be done by a doctor as your ear canal and eardrum are delicate parts and can be damaged.
7. Tooth Abscess
A tooth abscess is an infection at the root of a tooth, or between a tooth and the gum. This is usually caused by tooth decay. Other causes are gum disease, gingivitis, chipped or broken tooth. These problems open the tooth enamel that lets bacteria enter and infect the pulp of the tooth. If not treated immediately, the infection could spread to the bones that support the tooth.
The symptoms of an abscessed tooth include:
- A toothache
- Sensitivity to cold or hot
- Pain when chewing
- Bitter taste and foul smell of breath
- Swelling or redness of gums
- Swollen neck glands
- Open, draining sore on the gum
If you are experiencing any signs or symptoms, visit your dentist right away. The abscess should be trained to remove the infection. Root surgery may also be recommended to get rid of the diseased root tissue. Another way to treat abscess is by incision.
8. A headache
The ear is close to the brain, and the pain from a headache can seep down to the ears. But that is not always the case.
- Hemicrania Continua – This is a one-sided headache that also affects the ears. The common treatment to alleviate the pain is by taking anti-inflammatory drugs such as Indomethacin.
- An ice-pick Headache – This headache usually affects the eyes, but can also occur behind the ear and last for only a few seconds.
Other headaches that can cause pain behind the ears are:
- A cervicogenic headache
- A cold-stimulus or an ice-cream headache
- Primary Yawning a headache
- Sudden Unilateral Neuralgiform headache with Conjunctival Infection and Tears
- A nummular Headache
9. Swollen Lymph Nodes
A part of the body’s immune system, lymph nodes are located in many areas of the body. Lymph nodes that are usually swollen are found in the groin, armpit, and neck. Enlarged or swollen lymph nodes can result in pain behind the ears or back of the head. There are many reasons that can lead to swelling, such as cold, infection, inflammation, or cancer. It is best to visit your doctor for proper diagnosis and right treatment. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics if the cause is due to infection.
The pain behind the ears has numerous causes. These include otitis media, mastoiditis, temporomandibular joint disorder, swimmer’s ear, blocked Eustachian tube, ceruminosis, tooth abscess, headache and swollen lymph nodes. Persistent pain should be checked by a doctor for proper treatment.