For a person suffering from inner ear pain, the dentist is probably the last place they would expect to find treatment. In some cases, however, seeing a dentist about your ongoing inner ear pain could save you from months or even years of ear pain and costly antibiotics. If your family doctor or ear specialist has not been able to pinpoint the cause of your pain, it might be time to find out if temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ or TMD) could be causing your symptoms. In fact, about 80% of people with TMJ report ear-related symptoms.
Ear Infection Uncommon in Adults
Even if you got painful ear infections often as a child, you are unlikely to get them as an adult. An ear infection typically occurs when an infection elsewhere, such as a cold or flu, spreads to the middle ear. High numbers of bacteria and/or viruses clog the narrow passage. The clogging gets worse as your immune response causes swelling and the production of fluid in the ear. In children, the ear passage is narrow and easily clogged.
In adults, the ear passage is wider and less likely to get clogged. Plus, our immune response changes as we get older. Generally, this means we don’t get as much swelling.
Why TMJ Could Be Causing Your Ear Pain
A few common causes of ear pain aside from trauma include ear infections, inflammation of the ear canal, and blockage of the ear canal. These complications call for the attention of a physician for treatment. Physicians may also check your parotid gland, a salivary gland just in front of the ear, which may produce stones that put pressure on the ear canal. If an ear, nose, and throat specialist has ruled out the above causes of your ear pain, however, your trouble could be caused by TMJ.
The three bones that make up the inner ear are housed inside the temporal bone, which our jaw presses against. TMJ puts excess pressure on the temporal bone, leading to increased pressure within the ear. That pressure causes ear pain.
Another reason that TMJ can cause ear pain is because it puts pressure on the trigeminal nerve. This nerve controls most of the movement of the ear. Poor alignment of the jaw can cause spasms along the trigeminal nerve, leading to ear pain.
Ear pain may be accompanied by tinnitus, which is roaring or ringing in the ears that can have many causes (and frequently has no known cause). In the case of TMJ disorder, tinnitus is often caused by the pressure on the trigeminal nerve which can create tension on inner ear muscles.
How to Tell an Ear Infection from TMJ
If both an ear infection and TMJ could be causing your symptoms, how do you tell the difference? It’s likely you have an ear infection if you:
- Are sick or were sick recently
- Have a fever
- Experience ear discharge
An ear infection usually accompanies another illness. If you don’t have another illness, then you probably don’t have an ear infection. Fever is a good sign that you have an infection of some sort. If you have a fever, you should suspect an ear infection. Finally, TMJ won’t cause anything to drip from your ears. If you have ear discharge (either from the outer ear or into your mouth via the Eustachian tubes), then you probably have an infection.
On the other hand, suspect TMJ if:
- A doctor rules out infection
- Symptoms don’t resolve spontaneously or with antibiotics
- You have other TMJ symptoms
- Earache flares with jaw activity
If your doctor tells you that you don’t have an infection, it’s probably best to believe them. Remember: ear infections are uncommon in adults. Ear infections tend to resolve on their own, though in some cases they might need treatment with antibiotics. However, if these don’t work, then maybe it’s not an ear infection.
There are many TMJ symptoms, and almost no one experiences the same ones. Don’t rule out TMJ just because you don’t have jaw pain or headaches. Of course, if jaw activity, like chewing or talking, causes your ear symptoms to flare, it’s probably TMJ and not an ear infection.
Treating Ear Pain By Treating TMJ
Some ear, nose, and throat specialists as well as family doctors will note TMJ as a possible cause of ear pain but may be unable to treat it successfully. Visiting a TMJ dentist to see what treatment options may be best for you could be the difference between continued ear pain and the relief you are seeking.