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Pain Behind the Ears

Have you ever felt discomfort behind your ears? It can range from a dull ache to sharp, stabbing pain and may occur intermittently or persistently. And it's more common than you think, but the cause might not always be directly from your ears. 

Updated: 7th May 2024

If you've ever suffered from the discomfort of pain behind your ears, you're not alone. It turns out, the answer isn't always straightforward. Our ears are well-connected to different parts of our head and neck, so when pain strikes, it might not be the ears themselves. Dental issues, jaw joint quirks, and nerve-related headaches could also be the culprits. Understanding the potential causes, symptoms, and treatment options can help individuals manage and alleviate this discomfort effectively. 

What causes pain behind the ears?

The level of discomfort varies based on the underlying issue and the affected tissue. For example, a middle ear infection often manifests as pressure-like aching, whilst bone infections may result in a throbbing pain. The accompanying symptoms can range from hearing loss to throbbing headaches, and these indicate the type of diagnosis you require. 

Common causes of pain behind the ear

1. Otitis media

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2. Otitis externa

Commonly known as swimmer's ear, this inflammation of the ear canal results in symptoms like ear discharge and tenderness.

3. Impacted ears

Earwax buildup, especially due to improper cleaning practices, can lead to pain, tinnitus, and hearing loss.

4. TMJ disorder

Issues with the temporomandibular joint can cause persistent pain near the ear, accompanied by headaches and jaw sounds.

5. Occipital neuralgia

Severe shooting pain spreading through the upper neck and behind the ears, often accompanied by dizziness and nausea.

6. Mastoiditis

An infection of the mastoid bone, typically stemming from untreated acute otitis media, can result in pain, fever, and headaches.

7. Sinusitis

Inflammation of the sinuses due to allergies, infections, or other factors can cause pressure and pain that may extend to the area behind the ears.

Symptoms of pain behind the ear

Pain: the primary symptom is discomfort or pain behind one or both ears. The pain can vary in intensity and may be accompanied by other sensations such as throbbing or stabbing.

Tenderness: the area behind the ears may feel tender to the touch, especially if the pain is due to muscle tension or inflammation.

Earache: if the pain is related to an ear infection or sinusitis, individuals may also experience earaches, along with pain behind the ears.

Headaches: pain behind the ears may be associated with headaches, particularly tension headaches or migraines.

Other symptoms: depending on the underlying cause, individuals may experience additional symptoms such as fever, dizziness, hearing loss, or difficulty opening the mouth (in the case of TMJ dysfunction).

How to treat pain behind the ear

The treatment plan depends on the underlying cause. 

Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help alleviate mild to moderate pain. For severe pain, antibiotics may be prescribed for ear infections, whilst impacted ears may benefit from earwax-softening drops or professional microsuction

TMJ disorders may require a combination of muscle relaxants, NSAIDs, and physical therapy. Mastoiditis demands prompt medical attention with IV antibiotics and surgical drainage if necessary. 

Your treatment plan will depend on your doctor's findings and the actual diagnosis you receive. 

When to seek urgent medical attention

While not every case of ear pain demands an emergency visit, certain symptoms warrant attention. A high fever may signal an infection requiring antibiotics. Keep an eye out for excessive ear drainage, stiff neck, and neck pain, neurological symptoms, and light sensitivity, as these may indicate more serious issues.

Pain behind the ears can be caused by a variety of factors, ranging from muscle tension to ear infections or nerve irritation. It's important to identify the underlying cause of the pain in order to determine the most appropriate treatment approach. Getting medical help and a diagnosis is crucial for effective management and relief of pain behind the ears. With proper treatment and self-care measures, individuals can alleviate discomfort and improve their overall quality of life.

emma jarvis

Written By:
Emma Jarvis

Digital Optimisation Lead

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Medically Reviewed By:
Kuraisha Govender
Audiology Expert