Jaw and ear pain frequently occur together because of their close physical proximity and shared nerves that carry pain messages. Many conditions can cause jaw and ear pain on the right or left side.
Some of these ailments directly involve one or both of these structures and others refer pain to the jaw and ear. Because the severity of the pain does not necessarily reflect the seriousness of the underlying cause, see your doctor if you experience even mild pain in your jaw and ear.
An infection in your ear canal (otitis externa) or middle ear (otitis media) can cause pain in both your ear and jaw. Other possible symptoms include a sense of fullness or blockage of the ear, reduced hearing on the affected side and drainage from the ear — especially with ear canal infections. Fever occurs frequently in children with a middle ear infection but uncommonly in adults.
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% 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 with chewing, difficulty opening the mouth widely, jaw muscle tightness, and headaches.
If your ear examination reveals no abnormalities and your jaw joint is functioning well, dental problems involving your rear teeth on the affected side might be the source of your pain.
Possible culprits include tooth decay extending into the root system, or a tooth abscess (a pocket of infection). In addition to pain, possible symptoms include tooth sensitivity, increased pain with chewing, and swelling and/or redness of the involved area.
Although uncommon, an ear, dental or sinus infection can spread to nearby bones (osteomyelitis) causing moderate to severe jaw and ear pain. A tramatic injury to the face is another potential route of infection. Other possible signs and symptoms include fever, chills, localized swelling and tenderness, fatigue and possibly weight loss.
Salivary Gland Disorders
Your salivary glands produce spit (saliva). The largest of these glands, the parotids, sit in front of your ears. Inflammation of one or both of these glands (parotitis) characteristically causes pain in the jaw and ear area.
A noncancerous or cancerous tumor in the jaw and ear area represents an uncommon but important cause of pain in this region. Other possible symptoms with an ear tumor include hearing loss, ringing in the ear (tinnitus) and/or a spinning sensation (vertigo). With a jaw tumor, accompanying symptoms might include a lump on the face or in the mouth, and tooth loosening or movement.
With referred pain, a condition affecting one area of the body causes pain perceived in another area because the brain mislocates the source. As strange as that sounds, referred pain is actually quite common. A wide range of conditions can lead to referred pain felt in your jaw and ear, including:
Warning Signs and Symptoms
It's important to see your doctor if you experience jaw and ear pain. Call your healthcare provider right away if you experience any warning signs or 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 tingling, or vision changes
- Merck Manual Professional Version: Otic Tumors
- Merck Manual Professional Version: Jaw Tumors
- American Family Physician: Acute Otitis Externa: An Update
- National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research: Prevalence of TMJD and its Signs and Symptoms
- National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research: TMJ (Temporomandibular Joint and Muscle Disorders)
- Acta Oto-Laryngologica: Osteomyelitis in the Head and Neck
- ENT Today: ‘Doctor, My Ear Hurts’: Diagnosing Referred Otalgia
- Australian Family Physician: Otalgia
- American Family Physician: Ear Pain: Diagnosing Common and Uncommon Causes
- International Journal of Clinical Practice: Referred Otalgia: A Structured Approach to Diagnosis and Treatment