Few types of pain can be as disorienting as ear pain. Sufferers may believe their aural discomfort is caused by an infection. Surprisingly, however, the most common reason for ear pain is a disorder of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), which can cause a range of problems that begin at the jaw. Ear pain, and pressure are the most common symptoms of TMJ according to the Canadian Society of Otolaryngology.
Here's a look at disorders of the TMJ and ear pain, how to differentiate this sensation from other types, why it occurs and how to find relief.
What is the TMJ?
The temporomandibular joint is the area just in front of your ear, where the lower jaw connects to the side of your skull. The joint comprises a complex system of muscles, ligaments, bones and cartilage discs that act together as a hinge and enable you to move your lower jaw forward, backward and side-to-side. Any situation that causes the jaw to malfunction is called a TMJ disorder, and its symptoms can carry discomfort to the ear canal.
TMJ Pain Characteristics
TMJ ear pain might be a dull, ongoing irritation or it could be a sharp, searing pain. It may even cause minor spasms in some of the muscles that comprise your face. You're more likely to feel it, of course, whenever you move your jaw to talk, chew, yawn or swallow. Although this pain affects the tissues covering the joint just in front of your ear, you might also feel it in the surrounding facial area along the side of your head, neck, temple, cheek, lower jaw and teeth. Ear pain is often accompanied by a clicking, popping or grinding noise (when you chew or open your mouth) according to the Canadian Dental Association, and it can be difficult to open your mouth as wide as you would be able to normally.
The types of TMJ disorders patients typically experience fall into three categories:
- Myofascial pain, which is a deep, aching pain in the muscles of the TMJ.
- Derangement of the joint, which includes a dislocated jaw or an injury to the area.
- Degenerative disease, such as any form of arthritis that affects the jaw.
- Myofascial pain is the most common type of TMJ disorder, and it is also easier to relieve compared to the latter two conditions.
Why TMJ Ear Pain Occurs
Disorders of the TMJ and ear pain resulting from them occur for a number of reasons. Excessive chewing of gum, for example, can result in jaw overuse and subtle muscle spasms (which are red flags that something is wrong). A malocclusion or improper bite, as well as teeth grinding, stress and other psychological triggers can all put similar pressure on these muscles, resulting in pain and tenderness that radiates into the ear. Any form of accident to the neck or head is sure to make jaw damage a more obvious possibility, causing trauma to the joint that results in its displacement.
Treating disorders of the TMJ depends on the cause of the injury and severity of the circumstances surrounding it. Patients can realize immediate relief from sore muscles by using over-the-counter pain medications and applying moist heat to the area so that it isn't stiff when in use. Anti-inflammatory drugs and muscle relaxants can also help to reduce spasms and tenderness. If your pain is caused by teeth grinding or a bad bite, you may find a mouth guard or orthodontic treatment may help as well. Mouth sores from grinding can accompany your TMJ disorder, and certain mouth rinses can help to heal and desensitize the area.
Ultimately, injuries to the TMJ necessitate direct medical attention to restore your jaw to its correct position. And if you experience ear pain of any sort, don't assume it's an ear infection right away. Consider whether you could have TMJ ear pain, and get the care that targets the source of the issue.