Headaches are among the most common medical complaints, and they can be caused by almost anything. You’ll probably experience more than one in your lifetime — perhaps even several different types. Although most headaches aren’t cause for serious concern, it can be hard not to worry when your headache comes with other symptoms, such as ear, nose, or throat issues.
In the first part of this three-part series, we’ll look at ways in which a headache could be related to ear issues.
An ear infection can easily be the cause of an earache — which happens to be another common medical complaint. As fluid builds up behind the eardrum, it causes pressure, pain, and eventually infection as bacteria or a virus keeps the Eustachian tube (which connects the middle ear to the nose) from draining properly. Allergies can cause similar problems in the Eustachian tube. Ear infections are most commonly associated with infants, but they can happen at any age.
Unfortunately, the pain from an ear infection may eventually spread to nearby areas. This process is known as referred pain. The trigeminal nerve, so named because of its three branches, transmits sensations from the face to the brain. Because it has connections in both the ear and the head, the trigeminal nerve can transmit pain from one to the other. Thus, the pain signals caused by an ear infection can travel along the trigeminal nerve and trigger a headache.
If you often experience migraine headaches, consider whether your migraine could be the cause of your earache. Many migraine sufferers have reported feeling short-lived ear pain during a migraine episode, usually during the prodrome phase leading up to one. However, for some, the earache lasts throughout the migraine. The specific sensation differs from person to person and even between different days for the same person. It could be deep, shooting, or itching pain, and it could seem like a normal earache or be felt deeper in the ear or down the neck.
Although not much formal research has been conducted on this topic, the trigeminal nerve is a likely explanation. Other theories have been put forth, too — such as the tension and clenched teeth of a migraine irritating the temporomandibular joint. There are also several other ear-related sensations included in the list of symptoms associated with migraine disorder.
Treatment for a combination earache and headache varies depending on the cause of the pain. If an ear infection is to blame, you may need to take oral antibiotics or apply ear drops to clear up the infection. Keeping your allergies under control, if they are the cause, could help prevent earaches and the resulting headaches. If you suffer from migraines, the best course is to treat your migraine. Unfortunately, migraines can be notoriously hard to treat, but there are specialists available and an ever-expanding variety of treatments to try.
Work with your doctor to discover what is causing your headaches and earaches. They can not only prescribe the necessary medications to treat infection or to manage pain, but they can also help you plan out preventative measures to avoid triggers.