Ear and jaw pain is often associated, largely because of the proximity of the ear and jaw within the face’s structure. The jaw joint, or temporomandibular, is located just in front of the ear, and pain in this area often causes ear muscles to respond and tighten. Ear and jaw pain can be the result of temporomandibular dysfunction (an over-tensing of the jaw muscles), which is often caused by teeth grinding. Other causes of ear and jaw pain include salivary cancer (which affects the glands in the throat, neck and mouth) and dry sockets (a dental disorder).
Teeth grinding, medically known as bruxism, is a condition whereby people clench, gnash, or grind their teeth. This can be done consciously or unconsciously throughout day and also during sleep, which is referred to as sleep bruxism. Severe cases can require the use of splints, mouth guards, behavior therapy, and dental procedures to fix misaligned teeth. If pain begins spreading into the ear and jaw, this could be a sign of a temporomandibular disorder.
The frontal wall of the ear also serves as a back wall for the temporomandibular joints. The joints are located just in front of the ears where the lower part of the jawbone joins the skull. The temporomandibular joints allow the mouth to open and close, as well as move side to side and back and forth. There is a disc of tissue between joint bones that allows the jaw to function smoothly.
Temporomandibular dysfunction is when the jaw muscles become abnormally tense causing joints to stiffen. Symptoms include headache, cracking or clicking, lockjaw, as well as pain around the ear and along the jaw. While often attributed to teeth grinding, temporomandibular dysfunction is also caused by fingernail biting, anxiety, fatigue and stress. Treatment depends on the specific type of dysfunction, but often includes painkillers such as paracetamol, anti-depressants (some also help relax muscles), physiotherapy exercises, the use of a heating pad, and in extreme cases surgery.
Salivary cancer is a rare type of cancer that affects the salivary glands in the throat, neck and mouth. The cause is not precisely clear, but according to MayoClinic.com, exposure to radiation, tobacco use, and a family history of the disease can increase one’s risk of developing it. Symptoms include facial swelling and numbness, difficulty swallowing, and a recurring pain the location of the salivary gland. Of the three pairs of major salivary glands, the parotid gland--located just in front of the ear--is most commonly affected by salivary cancer.
Treatment includes surgery, reconstructive therapy, physical therapy, radiation and chemotherapy.
A dry socket can occur after the extraction of a permanent tooth. It is characterized by the dislodging of a blood clot at a tooth-extraction site or socket, which exposes bone and nerves. Pain can radiate from the socket through the jaw and into the ears. Treatment includes the application of medicated dressings, socket flushing and pain medication.