What Causes Ear Pain?

Causes of Ear Pain

Woman with ear pain
Woman with ear pain. Eric Audras/Getty Images

There are numerous causes of ear pain. While there are many causes of ear pain, identifying the other associated symptoms, may help you narrow down the cause of your pain.

Conditions that Cause Inner Ear Pain

Otitis media is the medical term for a <a data-cke-saved-href="http://ent.about.com/od/pediatricentdisorders/a/Everything-You-Need-To-Know-About-Middle-Ear-Infections-Otitis-Media.htm" href="http://ent.about.com/od/pediatricentdisorders/a/Everything-You-Need-To-Know-About-Middle-Ear-Infections-Otitis-Media.htm" "="">middle ear infection.

The condition can cause significant ear pain which may get worse when lying down. Otitis media occurs when the auditory tube becomes blocked and is unable to drain. This may occur following a cold or congestion caused by allergies. Otitis media is more common in children because of the size and angle of their auditory tube but can also occur in adults. Other symptoms of otitis media may include: fever, nausea and vomiting, loss of balance, or in severe cases drainage from the ear. Small children who are unable to talk may become irritable and may touch or pull at their ears.

Mastoiditis is an uncommon condition that occurs when a middle ear infection spreads to the mastoid bone. In addition to the symptoms of a middle ear infection symptoms of mastoiditis include: redness or swelling behind the ear, headaches, and if the infection progresses long enough abscesses in the neck.

Foreign objects in the ear commonly occurs in children.

When the object becomes stuck in the ear, pain can occur. If an object is pushed too far inside of the ear it can actually rupture the ear drum.

Auditory tube dysfunction is the abnormal opening or closing of the auditory tube. Under normal circumstances the auditory tube opens and closes in response to changes in atmospheric pressure.

This allows the air inside of the middle ear to equalize. Any condition that causes the auditory tube to become clogged or prevents it from opening and closing can be referred to as auditory tube dysfunction. This can result in pressure and pain in the ear when the atmospheric pressure changes rapidly and the pressure in the middle ear is unable to equalize. Examples of situations that might cause this are taking off or landing in an airplane, scuba diving, or driving up a steep mountain. In some cases, you may experience ear pain for a moment which then subsides as the pressure in the middle ear stabilizes. In severe cases, pressure in the middle ear becomes too great and the ear drum may rupture. This is called barotrauma of the ear.

Ruptured ear drums can cause severe pain initially, however the pain may quickly subside after the rupture. The most common cause of a ruptured ear drum is barotrauma due to auditory tube dysfunction and atmospheric pressure changes. However, a ruptured ear drum can also be caused by extremely loud noises, or trauma when foreign objects such as bobby pins or Q-tips are inserted into the ear.

Besides pain that may last only a short period of time, other symptoms of a ruptured ear drum include: sudden hearing loss, dizziness and drainage from the ear which may be bloody.

Conditions that Cause Outer Ear Pain

Otitis externa is the medical term for swimmer's ear. Swimmer's ear is an infection of the outer ear caused by contaminated water. It is common among swimmers but can also occur when the ears do not completely dry out after baths or showers. Swimmer's ear occurs in both children and adults and in addition to ear pain can result in ear redness, itchy ears, dry flaky skin, drainage from the ear and fevers.

Ear trauma refers to any kind of injury to the outer portion of the ear. This type of injury can commonly occur in certain contact sports such as mixed martial arts, but the risk is reduced if headgear is worn. If an injury becomes infected it can lead to perichondritis.

Perichondritis is an infection of the cartilage which makes up the outer ear and is usually the result of trauma to the ear from surgery, ear piercing or accidental injury. In addition to ear pain symptoms include: redness and swelling. In severe cases you may experience: fever, purulent drainage, or even deformation of the ear.

Sometimes ear pain results even though the source of the pain is not in the ear but elsewhere in the body. This is especially true since the ears are connected to other parts of the head and neck. For example, the auditory tube drains into the back of the throat. The ears are also connected to the sinuses, which are connected to the nasal passageways and nasolacrimal duct. Ear pain that is caused by a condition elsewhere in the body is called referred ear pain. Known causes of referred ear pain include:

Some other causes of ear pain which are very rare include:

  • malignant otitis externa
  • tumors
  • viral meningitis
  • Bell's palsy
  • Ramsay Hunt syndrome
  • Wegener's granulomatosis
  • temporal arteritis
  • neuralgias
  • oral aphthous ulcers
  • disorders of the thyroid gland
  • cervical adenopathy
  • myofacial pain
  • Eagle's syndrome
  • spasms of the muscles involved in chewing
  • cricoarytenoid arthritis
  • salivary gland disorders
  • GERD

Sources:

American Family Physician. Diagnosis of Ear Pain. Accessed: January 28, 2014 from http://www.aafp.org/afp/2008/0301/p621.html

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