What is causing my ear and jaw pain?

Ear and jaw pain can range from mild ache to intense pain. Numerous conditions can cause pain in the ear and jaw, including infections, fractures and issues with the joint.

In this article we speak about the most common causes of pain in the ear and jaw. We also recommend home remedies to try and explain the medical treatment choices before seeing a specialist.

Causes

A lady having ear pain
A problem with the temporomandibular joint may cause ear and jaw pain.

Several conditions can cause pain in the ear and in the jaw.

Diagnosing the cause on the basis of these symptoms alone can be difficult for a doctor so they will take into account risk factors and recent history. A person who hasn’t been to the dentist for many years and has a history of tooth pain, for example, may have a cavity.

Some common causes of ear and jaw pain include the following:

TMJ dysfunction

temporomandibular joint (TMJ) problems may cause a wide range of symptoms including, most notably, pain in the ears and jaws. Many people also get headaches, pain in the eyes and even pressure in the sinus. There are several conditions and causes that can cause pain with TMJ, including:

  • grinding the teeth
  • problems with the alignment of the jaw or teeth
  • muscle injuries
  • arthritis

Although TMJ can be painful, home treatment often helps manage or even eliminate symptoms.

Sternocleidomastoid pain

The sternocleidomastoid is a thick muscle that extends right down to the collarbone from just under the jaw. Jaw and ear pain can be caused by injuries to this muscle, as well as sinus pain, eye pressure and other symptoms that a person can mistake for signs of cold or infection.

An injury to the sternocleidomastoid may be the culprit when a person has these symptoms but has no injuries and no other signs of infection — such as a fever or runny nose. A doctor can rule out other causes, such as middle or inner ear infections, by performing a physical exam.

Oral infections

Often, a tooth abscess may cause pain that radiates to the ear or jaw.

A person will have swelling in the gums or tender spots in and around the teeth in most cases too. The pain in the teeth often disappears, and then reappears as ear or jaw pain, which may signify the spread of the infection.

Ear infections

An ear infection can cause severe pain inside, around, or behind the ear. The pain often radiates to the ear, the sinuses or the teeth.

Viruses or bacteria often cause ear infections. Also, ear infections may occur when water or other fluids build up in the ear.

An person with an ear infection can experience other symptoms, such as fever, coughing and low energy. Before care, the pain of an ear infection can be severe and may get quickly worse.

Untreated ear infections can spread to other body parts. Many people develop a mastoiditis infection which is an infection in the near-ear mastoid bone. When that happens, a person may experience near-ear swelling, hearing problems, or high fever. Severe cases of mastitis can be life threatening and need to be treated immediately.

Jaw injuries

An injury to the underlying muscles, such as a broken jaw or a strain or sprain, may cause jaw pain that radiates to the ear. If a person feels pain in the ear and jaw soon after a fall, a car accident, or a head hit, they may experience a jaw injury that needs medical care.

Tooth grinding

Grinding the teeth at night puts stress on head, arm, and jaw muscles. The strain can cause pain in the mouth, ears and facial front or hand. Some people might also hurt their teeth, grind them down slowly or even break them.

Home remedies

At home, it is safe to treat ear and jaw pain when it is not caused by an underlying infection or a serious injury. People can try tactics such as:

  • Sleep with a mouth guard to prevent tooth grinding. 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. 
  • 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.

Medical treatment

Antibiotics are almost always needed in infections. Sometimes, a person needs other medical treatments, particularly for serious infections like 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

When to see a doctor 

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

Summary

Ear and jaw discomfort can be especially disagreeable. Even where there is a serious underlying problem, prompt medical treatment can help.

If the treatment at home fails, a person can talk to their doctor. There is no reason to suffer through the treatment with pain or pause.

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