Headaches are a common cause of medical complaints. There are a wide variety of causes for them and they are linked to countless health concerns. We tend to think of headaches as forehead pain, but this isn’t entirely accurate. They can actually refer to widespread pain originating from your neck, head and even into your sinuses and your respiratory system. In this first part of a 3-part series, we’ll examine ear pain and headaches.
For most headache pain, you likely don’t need to be overly concerned. They are often simply a sign of stress and can be managed with over-the-counter medicine. But when they are associated with other symptoms such as ear, nose and throat pain, they can be a more serious cause for concern.
Although we tend to associate ear infections with children, they are somewhat common in adults as well. As fluid builds behind the eardrum, it can cause pressure and pain and lead to headaches. The fluid generally contains bacteria and sometimes viruses that are to be properly drained out of the ear canal through the eustachian (the tube connecting the middle ear to the nose).
If this fluid is not drained, then an infection may form. This can be a particularly severe problem for those who suffer from allergies and those who smoke.
Over time, this infection can spread to other areas in the region across the trigeminal nerve. This key nerve transmits pain signals across the ear and through the head, creating discomfort and headaches. The pain will then travel across your blood vessels so you may feel additional discomfort in places like your face, neck and even lower back.
Treatment for this can be difficult as the CDC may not recommend antibiotics for these types of infections, particularly if the infection is caused by antibiotics. Instead, your doctor may advise prescription ear drops and antihistamines to both tackle the infection and the cause of the fluid blockage.
More than 39 million people in the United States suffer from migraines. They tend to run in families and are ranked as the 6th most disabling illness in the world. Migraines symptoms are complex, but one symptom commonly reported is ear pain that lasts throughout the episode or during the lead-up phase.
Individuals who experience ear pain during migraines report ear fullness and pressure as well as ringing in the ears (tinnitus). A recent study showed that 86% of migraine sufferers also report simultaneous ENT pain.
Once again, the trigeminal nerve is involved in this type of pain. Other key factors include clenching of the jaw, an action that irritates the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). This is the joint that facilitates the movement of your jaw so it can open and close. In addition, there is growing evidence to support that migraines may be associated with spinal cord injury.
Hear from a Stanford Headache Clinic expert on how to manage migraines below:
Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder
It’s clear that the temporomandibular joint can play a role in ear pain and headaches. If you experience an injury, misalignment or arthritis in the joint, it can’t work smoothly. It will grind and make it difficult to move your mouth. In some cases, TMJ problems may even prevent people from being able to chew.
With TMJ disorder, pain radiates through your ear and can lead to headaches. It’s essential to seek pain relief before other serious symptoms start to develop such as lockjaw. Talk to your health care team about creating a personalized pain management approach.
Dental pain and concerns
The final most common cause of ear pain and headaches can stem from dental problems. Oral concerns such as cavities, tartar and abscessed teeth can spread discomfort to your ear canal and head.
Potential warning signs of this type of headache include:
- trouble chewing
- bad breath
- pain while brushing your teeth
- gum tenderness
The best way to prevent these types of headaches is to ensure you follow a solid dental hygiene regimen.
When should you see a doctor?
To begin with, your annual physical examination is crucial to your overall health. Your doctor can test your ear health and test for hearing loss even if you aren’t experiencing any headaches. This can help to prevent long-term issues from developing. A brief headache isn’t a big deal. However, if you have intense or recurring ear pain and headaches, then seek medical advice as soon as possible.
Additional related reasons to visit the doctor include:
- having a high fever along with the headache
- thinking you may have an ear infection
- experiencing pain that spreads to the spinal cord
- not seeing improvement from treatment
- experiencing lockjaw
- feeling nauseous and vomiting due to your headache
- having seizures
- experiencing a lack of energy
- being unable to sleep due to pain
Seeking the right treatment for ear pain and headaches
Getting the best treatment for a combination of ear pain and headache depends a lot on the cause of the problem. For instance, if you are suffering from an infection, then you’ll likely need prescription ear drops. Or if your allergies are causing sinus congestion, you may need antihistamines. Be sure to avoid smoking and other activities that cause harm to your sinuses.
However, if migraines are the source of the pain, you’ll need other treatment options. Unfortunately, migraines can be challenging to treat. OTC medications may not be effective, so your doctor can prescribe something stronger and better tailored to your specific pain.
Finally, earaches caused by dental problems can be treated by your dentist. She will be able to locate the source of the problem and prescribe treatment options that target that level of pain.
If you are still unsure of the cause of your ear pain and headaches, seek the medical advice of an ear, nose and throat specialist. She will be able to help you identify the source of the problem and prescribe a proper treatment plan that best addresses your needs.
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This post has been updated as of March 2019 with new information and resources.