My Ear Hurts! Is It My Jaw Joint?
by Dr. Scott Bolding | Nov. 6, 2020
As a child, I had chronic ear infections that caused me significant pain. Many of us experienced gnawing earaches when we were kids. Our parents would take us to the doctor, who would give us antibiotics or pain medication. This seemed to be the only way to relieve our pain. Why do I bring this up as a TMJ surgeon?
Ear Pain and TMJ Disorders: An Interesting Relationship
A very interesting experience happened to me as a child when I was playing whirly-ball with a friend. As kids, we would hit the ball tied to a rope around the pole. My friend would hit it one way and I the other. The goal was to get the ball past your opponent and wrap it the rope around the pole. On one occasion my friend hit the ball in the opposite direction and I missed it; the ball hit me in the left jaw. Instantly, I began to have severe right ear pain. This was always very odd to me. I didn’t know at the time there was a correlation between ear pain and issues in the jaw.
In dental school, I learned about the relationship between TMJ disorders and ear pain. I learned about the anatomy of the jaw. What I realized was that a lot of the time ear pain has nothing to do with the ear. It’s pain in the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). The pain I felt when the ball hit me was actually due to pain in my jaw.
Interesting isn’t it?
The Connection Between the Jaw and Ear Pain
Why does the TMJ mimic ear pain?
The TMJ is the joint that connects the lower jaw to the base of the skull. This joint and its movements are very active throughout our lives. The TMJ is important for jaw movement and function, as well as lower jaw growth. The nerves that surround the TMJ are many of the same sensory nerves that supply the ear with sensation as well. So, when there is an injury or damage to the TMJ it can create symptoms that appear to be ear pain.
TMJ is Often Mistaken for Ear Pain
This is often missed by many dentists and physicians. As a TMJ surgeon, most of my referrals today do not come from dentists but from physicians. Many good physicians understand this correlation, but many do not. They assume the ear is hurting because there is pressure behind the eardrum. Antibiotics are often prescribed, even though the ear appears normal. We see this all too often. Patients are treated for multiple “ear infections.” Unfortunately, the problem might be the TMJ. Don’t get me wrong, you can have an ear infection or other issues associated with your ear. But you need to always rule out a TMJ injury or disorder.
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Is It Ear Pain or a TMJ Disorder?
If you are suffering from chronic pain in or around your ear it could be your TMJ. My recommendation would be to check with your dentist, physician or to see a good ENT doctor. They will be able to determine if the source of your pain is in the ear or the temporomandibular joint.