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Aching Ears and Headaches

by 
author image Dr. Tina M. St. John
Tina M. St. John runs a health communications and consulting firm. She is also an author and editor, and was formerly a senior medical officer with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. St. John holds an M.D. from Emory University School of Medicine.
Aching Ears and Headaches
Aching Ears and Headaches Photo Credit: Deagreez/iStock/GettyImages

Getting on with your day is challenging when your ears and head ache. The coexistance of these symptoms generally point to medical conditions involving one or more structures in your head. They might involve the ear itself or other structures, such as your sinuses or upper jaw. As accurate diagnosis is the key to resolving your pain, medical evaluation is needed to determine appropriate treatment.

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Ear Infection

Middle ear infections most frequently affect young children but also occur in adolescents and adults. Typical symptoms include an earache with pressure or fullness and reduced hearing in the affected ear. Adolescents and adults with a middle ear infection, or otitis media, also sometimes report a headache. With rare complications of otitis media, such as spread of the infection to the bone behind the ear, headache tends to occur more frequently and cause more severe pain compared to an uncomplicated middle ear infection.

Sinusitis

Inflammation of the lining tissue of the paranasal sinuses underlies the condition called sinusitis. Common causes include a recent head cold and nasal allergies. Headache often accompanies sinusitis due to increased pressure within the inflamed sinus or sinuses. This occurs as a result of fluid accumulation caused by blocked mucus drainage.

The inflammation-induced tissue swelling in the sinuses that occurs with sinusitis frequently extends into the nose and often involves the eustachian tube -- a small conduit between the middle ear and the back of the nose. This tube can serve as a route of infection into the middle ear and associated pain. In the absence of infection, blockage of the opening of the eustachian tube in the nose due to tissue swelling can also lead ear pain.

Temporomandibular Joint Disorder

The temporomandibular joints join the upper jaw to the skull in front of the ears. Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders affect approximately 15 percent of adults, according to a March 2015 article published in American Family Physician. The underlying causes of TMJ disorders vary but all share common symptoms, including:

  • Jaw pain and/or impaired function
  • Earaches
  • Headaches
  • Facial pain

Upper Spinal Disorders

Arthritis and other disorders affecting the bones of the uppermost spine at the base of the skull can cause both headaches and earaches. The pain usually arises due to compression of nerves as they exit the spinal cord. Headaches due to this cause usually occur at the back of the head. Ear pain can occur in one or both ears. Eye pain also might occur as well as decreased ability to move the head and/or neck normally.

Other Considerations, Warnings and Precautions

The conditions discussed represent the leading causes of the paired symptoms of headache and earache. However, other less common ailments might also trigger these symptoms. See your doctor if you experience coexisting head and ear pain, especially if these symptoms persist for more than a few days. Contact your doctor right away or seek urgent medical care if your symptoms are accompanied by any warning signs or symptoms, including:

  • Fever or chills
  • Severe or worsening headache
  • Visual changes
  • Sudden neck stiffness
  • Confusion, agitation, drowsiness or other mental changes
  • Dizziness or a spinning sensation
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
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