It’s said that into every life, a little rain must fall. If we’re talking about rain as a metaphor for pain or discomfort, that’s probably true. Unfortunately, a little pain is likely to enter all our lives. And, if that pain starts by your ear, you may be faced with a dilemma about who to consult for help.
The good news is that you have options to find out more about what’s causing pain near your ear and jaw. By no means will every person living experience serious jaw pain, but it’s common enough that you can start looking for help close to home with your dental care team. Whether the pain is just in your jaw, starts in your jaw and radiates up toward your ear, starts in your ear and radiates down to your jaw, whether it is jaw pain on the left side by your ear, pain under your right ear by the jaw, or is on both sides, your dental care team may be able to help you understand and treat your pain. There’s a common cause of jaw pain by the ear that your dental care team is well equipped to treat.
What Causes Jaw Pain by Ear?
As with any pain, there are a number of possible causes for ear/jaw pain. If you have ear pain with fever, with or without hearing loss, you should speak to your primary care physician as soon as possible. Those are symptoms of an ear infection. An ear infection may require medication, like an antibiotic, to preserve healthy ear function. Women, particularly, should be aware that jaw pain is sometimes part of an atypical presentation of a heart attack. If you are a female with left-side jaw pain accompanied by sweating, nausea, shortness of breath, and feeling faint, check in with your medical care team right away. Luckily, that’s a very rare cause of jaw pain.
Although there are several other possible causes of jaw pain, jaw pain that radiates to the ear without any signs of infection is frequently caused by TMD, particularly in younger people and women.
What is TMD?
TMD is an acronym that stands for Temporal Mandibular Disorder. That’s just a technical way of specifying a problem with the joint that lets your jaw open, shut, and move. The joint that lets you move your jaw is called the temporal mandibular joint. It gets its name from the two parts it connects: the temporal bones in the head and the mandible bones in the jaw. The TMJ is an incredibly mobile joint that not only goes up and down but also allows side to side movement. This flexibility lets you chew and talk, but it also leaves the joint more susceptible to injury. Pain from the joint, difficulty moving the joint, and inflammation of the joint are all referred to as TMD, and it is estimated to affect as many as 10 million Americans.
What Causes TMD?
One frequent cause of TMD is clenching of the teeth or tooth grinding, clinically called bruxism. Often associated with stress, clenching and grinding can be really hard on your teeth and your jaw joint. Of course, any injury to the jaw can knock the joint out of alignment and cause pain and problems. Arthritis, either osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis can cause joint problems and pain in the jaw. Even yawning really widely can knock things out of alignment and cause TMD.
What are the Symptoms of TMD?
Pain in the jaw, of course, is the primary symptom. Swelling can also happen. Sometimes, you may even have your jaw “frozen” or locked in place, or your jaw may be difficult to open and close. You also may hear a clicking sound when you move your jaw. Your dental care team can help you identify symptoms and confirm that TMD is the cause of those symptoms.
How to Treat Pain Near Ear and Jaw
There are steps you can take at home to get immediate relief from TMD symptoms. Ice or heat applied to the sore spots can help, as can massaging the jaw muscles. Over-the-counter pain relievers can also be helpful. Chewing carefully, sticking to soft food when the pain flares up, and not chewing on gum or other non-foods (i.e. pencils, your nails) can also give your body time to heal.
If you have pain from clenching and grinding teeth—behaviors that happen more frequently at night—your dental care team may recommend using a night guard while you sleep to help cushion your mouth and lessen the pressure in your jaw. You may also want to try stress relief strategies to help address the root problem.
You don’t need to suffer from jaw pain by the ear. If you’re experiencing symptoms, make an appointment to discuss your options with your dental care team or your primary care team.