Jaw and ear pain frequently occur together for a simple reason: These two parts of the body are located right next to each other and share the same nerves that carry pain messages.
Many conditions can cause both jaw and ear pain on both sides of the head, including ear infections, dental problems and joint and muscle disorders. But because the level of your discomfort doesn't necessarily reflect the seriousness of the underlying cause, it's important to see a doctor if you experience even mild pain in in this area.
1. Ear Infections
An infection in your ear canal (otitis externa) or middle ear (otitis media) can cause pain in both the ear and jaw, according to American Family Physician.
Other possible symptoms include:
A sense of fullness or blockage of the ear
Reduced hearing on the affected side
Drainage from the ear, especially with ear canal infections
frequently in children with a middle ear infection but is less common in adults)
2. Joint and Muscle Disorders
One-sided jaw and ear pain often signals a problem with the jaw joint (the temporomandibular joint) and/or the muscles involved in jaw movement. These conditions, known collectively as temporomandibular joint and muscle disorders or TMJDs, affect 5 to 12 percent of adults according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.
In addition to jaw and ear pain, possible symptoms of a TMJD include:
- Tenderness in the affected area
- Clicking or popping of the jaw while chewing
- Difficulty opening the mouth widely
- Jaw muscle tightness
"Both joint and muscle disorders can cause jaw and ear pain — and nearly any source of pain in the head and neck can radiate to the ear due to cross innervation," Joseph White, MD, an otolaryngologist at The University of Tennessee Medical Center, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Rheumatoid arthritis has also been associated with TMJD, he adds.
"Both joint and muscle disorders can cause jaw and ear pain — and nearly any source of pain in the head and neck can radiate to the ear due to cross innervation."
3. Dental Problems
If your ear examination reveals nothing out of the ordinary and your jaw joint feels fine, the pain might be caused by a dental issue related to the rear teeth on the affected side. "A dental infection can cause ear and jaw pain, and extraction is usually the fix," says Dr. White.
Possible culprits include tooth decay extending into the root system, or a tooth abscess (a pocket of infection), per the U.S. National Library of Medicine. In addition to pain, you might notice:
- Tooth sensitivity
- Increased pain with chewing
- Swelling and/or redness around the affected area
4. Bone Infection
Although uncommon, an ear, dental or sinus infection can spread to nearby bones (osteomyelitis) causing moderate to severe jaw and ear pain, per the Merck Manual.
A traumatic injury to the face is another potential route of infection. Other possible signs and symptoms include:
- Localized swelling and tenderness
- Possible weight loss
5. Salivary Gland Disorders
Your salivary glands produce spit (saliva). The largest of these glands, the parotids, sit just in front of your ears. Inflammation of one or both of these glands (parotitis) characteristically causes pain in the jaw and ear area. Other symptoms may include:
- Localized swelling
- Dry mouth
"Sialadenitis (an infection of the salivary glands) and salivary stones, as well as salivary gland neoplasms, can all cause jaw and ear pain," reports Dr. White.
Treatment depends on the issue: Excision is the normal avenue for neoplasms, while sialadenitis is usually treated conservatively with antibiotics, warm compresses and massages.
If there's a stone, extraction can be the cure with a simple incision, but large stones or recurrent disease could warrant removal of the whole salivary gland, says Dr. White.
A noncancerous or cancerous tumor in the jaw and ear area represents an uncommon but serious cause of pain in this region.
With a jaw tumor, you might also notice:
- A lump on the face or in the mouth
- Tooth loosening or movement
Head and neck cancer may also cause similar pain, but it's relatively rare, accounting for about 4 percent of those with malignant tumors in the U.S., per a 2013 report in the Journal of Clinical Medicine.
It may come as a surprise, but pain felt in the jaw and ear might also be due to a migraine headache.
"The treatment for migraines is complex and can range from learning and controlling migraine triggers to taking abortive medications like sumatriptan and preventive therapies like beta blockers, Topamax and various anti-depression medications," explains Dr. White.
Warning Signs and Symptoms
It's important to see your doctor if you experience jaw and ear pain. Call your health care provider immediately if you experience any other concerning symptoms, including:
- Swelling or a new lump on your face or in your mouth
- Rash or redness involving the painful area
- Drainage from your ear
- Sudden hearing loss, vertigo or ringing in your ears
- Nervous system symptoms such as drooping of the face, numbness or changes in vision
- American Family Physician: "Acute Otitis Externa: An Update"
- National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research: "Prevalence of TMJD and Its Signs and Symptoms"
- American Family Physician: "Ear Pain: Diagnosing Common and Uncommon Causes"
- Joseph White, MD, otolaryngologist
- Journal of Clinical Medicine: "Multiple Cancers of the Head and Neck"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Tooth Abscess"
- Merck Manual: "Osteomyelitis"