You may experience ear pain when eating, specifically chewing and swallowing, due to the close proximity of nerves in the ear and those in the jawline. The condition temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, more commonly known as TMD or TMJ syndrome, may be behind the pain.
Your ears are connected to the muscles and nerves in your jaw, mouth, and neck, which work together to allow you to chew and swallow food and beverages. In addition to the abnormal sounds you may hear as the jawline is forced up and down during these processes, pain can travel to the ear canal with an inflamed TMJ.
This ear pain may lead to the improper chewing of food, which can, in turn, strain the muscles of the face and neck. When foods are not fully broken down before swallowing, they can cause problems in the esophagus and the remainder of the digestive track.
Let’s take a further look at the causes and treatments to give you a clearer idea of this condition.
In This Article:
Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMD) and Ear Pain
Many adults experience ear pain as a result of a temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD). As noted, the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is located close to the ear canal—it acts as a hinge where the lower and upper jaws meet. This joint controls the chewing/biting motion when eating food.
People with TMD often have at least one predisposing factor (e.g. their molar teeth don’t fit together very well). When the teeth don’t fit together, biting can cause stress on the jaw joint due to the uneven pressure being applied to the joint spaces.
In addition to the excess pressure on the jaw, TMJ pain is also defined as constant and dull or sharp and severe pain along the jawline and surrounding areas of the face and neck. The pain may progressively worsen with everyday chewing and swallowing.
The disturbance to the ear region may create a popping or clicking sound, as well as limit your ability to widen the jaw when opening your mouth.
All of these contributors to TMJ syndrome may cause one or more of the following issues:
- Pain of the joint, known as myofascial pain
- Dislocated or damaged jaw joint
- Arthritis of the jaw
Dentists don’t know exactly what causes TMD, but it could arise from problems with the jaw muscles, whiplash or even bruxism (grinding or clenching the teeth), arthritis, or stress.
Depending on the underlying cause of TMJ, ear pain may result from overuse of the affected muscles and tissues along the jawline. This pain is common in those who frequently chew gum or respond to stress and emotional fatigue by putting pressure on muscles in the region. Damage or injury to the joint or its muscles and tissues may also cause ear pain.
Dental work or surgery may also cause pain in the ear as the connecting tissue is physically stressed. Keeping the mouth open for prolonged periods of time during a procedure can also cause stress on the joint near the ear. Chewing, even hours after the dental procedure, may trigger the pain.
Other Causes of Ear Pain When Chewing
Middle ear infections: The middle of the ear is a small area found near the eardrum. The ossicles are three bones found in the middle ear—they are among the smallest bones in the body. Ossicles send waves from the eardrum to the inner ear. Consequently, middle ear infections can result in pain while eating/chewing. This pain may also be due to inflammation from allergies, the common cold, or a sinus infection. These conditions can cause a blockage of the middle ear tubes, leading to a buildup of infected fluids. If the infection (otitis media) does not clear on own or is not treated, it can lead to hearing loss.
Jaw problems: If your jaw becomes inflamed, it can be one of the reasons behind the pain in the ear when you are chewing. In most cases, poor hygiene or jaw injuries are responsible for the swelling in the jaw.
Ear canal infection: The ear canal is the tube that starts from the outer ear and ends at the eardrum. Swimmer’s ear, known as otitis externa, can cause pain as the ear canal becomes inflamed and possibly infected. This can occur when debris or water enters the ear canal. This form of infection can be recurring.
Tooth abscess: A tooth abscess caused by a bacterial infection occurs when pus builds up in the middle of the tooth. The pain in the ear when chewing may also be caused by a decayed or damaged tooth. The nerve affected runs from the gums to the ear. Fluid causing a sinus infection may also see ear pain.
Parotitis: This is inflammation of the parotid glands, which are located in front of the ears, on either side of the mouth. These major salivary glands assist the breakdown of food during chewing. A salivary gland infection may result in pain in the ear. The pain may also be felt when opening and closing the mouth.
Tooth or gum problems: Either of these problems may cause ear pain when chewing. It may form from an abscess in the gums, which occurs when a food particle gets stuck between the gum line and a tooth, or when an infected pus sac sits under the gum line. Decay of the tooth that runs deep into the gums may also cause pain and, subsequently, an infection.
Traumatic injury: A traumatic injury to any portion of the face or mouth may result in ear pain during the chewing of food. This may include inflammation due to a blow to the face, dislocation of the TMJ, a muscle spasm, or a fractured bone. Any injury to facial muscles and tissues may also include bruising, involuntary movement of the jaw, and bleeding from the mouth or ear.
Treatment and Prevention Tips for Ear Pain When Chewing
Painkillers, antibiotics, ear drops, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (i.e. ibuprofen) can all help reduce pain in the ear while chewing, but there are a few natural things you can do to improve discomfort as well—most specifically a change in diet. Avoid eating food products that require a lot of chewing. Opt for soft foods, such as dairy products, tofu, fruits (e.g. ripe bananas), and well-cooked ground meat.
Since the most common cause of ear pain in adults comes from TMD, here are a few measures you can take to resolve flare-ups:
- Apply an ice pack to the side of your face that is in pain and leave it on for about 10 minutes. After you remove the ice pack, perform a few simple jaw stretches. Afterward, hold a warm towel to the area for five minutes. Repeat a few times daily.
- Keep yawning and gum-chewing to a minimum;
- Don’t yell or sing and avoid anything that requires you to open your mouth wide.
- Avoid resting your chin on your hand for too long.
- Try not to hold your phone between your shoulder and ear, as it puts unnecessary pressure on the jaw.
- If you clench or grind your teeth during the day, stick your tongue between them to avoid doing it. Use a mouth guard at night to prevent involuntary teeth grinding.
- Use caution when chewing by consuming soft food and avoid crunching on candy or ice chips.
Ear Pain when Chewing Should Be Examined
Pain in the ears when chewing food or gum can range from a mild discomfort to a severe sharp, stabbing pain. The ears are connected to the back of the throat by the Eustachian tube and share muscle tissue with the joint of the jawline.
An infection of the middle ear, effects of the common cold, and allergies may contribute to ear pain. Dental problems such as a cavity or tooth decay can also produce pain in both the mouth and the ear.
TMJ syndrome is a major factor when assessing ear pain. The grinding and clicking noise that accompanies the pain may indicate overuse and damage to the joint by improper eating habits, teeth clenching, arthritis, or injury.
Depending on the cause of the ear pain, treatment may include consuming soft foods, using heat and ice compresses, and avoiding the excessive chewing that often occurs with gum and hard foods.
Certain infections may require medical treatment to prevent further complications such as hearing loss or damage to the teeth.
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