Ear pain and ear ringing can become a nagging condition that affects everyday life. Ear ringing is technically called tinnitus. Often the cause of ear symptoms are related to the ear itself. However, ear pain may also originate from referred pain. What that means is that the pain is caused by another source near the ear that may feel like ear pain. One source that may create symptoms such as ear pain or ringing of the ears is the temporomandibular joint (often called the TMJ for short). This article will discuss the highlights of what you need to know how TMJ dysfunction relates to earaches.

Where is the temporomandibular joint?

The temporomandibular joints are the two joints that connect the jawbone to the skull. The primary function of the TMJ is to open and close the mouth in a rotating and sliding motion. Most notably the TMJ is located directly in front of the tragus of the ear.

How does TMJ dysfunction cause ear pain?

The TMJ complex includes the jawbone, temporomandibular joints on both sides of the head, and the muscles that attach. Because the jawbone is connected on both sides of the head, a delicate balance of these factors must be maintained, or problems arise.

Think of the jawbone as a hammock hanging from two trees. When a person lays in the middle of a hammock suspended by solid trees, the situation is relaxing and comfortable. But what if that same person laid too far toward one tree, or too far to their left or right? The situation becomes unbalanced. The once comfortable hammock now feels unstable and thus uncomfortable. And what if someone were to attempt to gently rock the hammock in this unstable position? It would swing, but erratically. Stress would form on the hinges, and the hinges would occasionally snap at the tree trunks as the hammock swings out of harmony.

The jawbone is just like a hammock that requires a certain level of balance and stability. Instability of the system creates tension and inflammation. When a patient presents with these symptoms it is called TMJ dysfunction.

Because inflammation of TMJ dysfunction resides in the temporomandibular joint and muscles near the ear, the inflammation caused by a TMJ problem can present as ear pain, earache, or tinnitus. When associated with TMJ inflammation, the symptoms of TMJ ear pain commonly worsen with the use of the jaw during chewing, speaking, or clenching.

What are the Symptoms of TMJ Dysfunction?

When there is TMJ dysfunction several symptoms may arise from the strain. The symptoms can vary from person to person, and the severity of symptoms can wax and wane over periods of time. The symptoms commonly associated with TMJ dysfunction are:

  • Headaches
  • Painful/non-painful clicking and popping when opening the mouth
  • Locking of the jaw in an open or closed position
  • Pain or tenderness in the face, jaw joint area, neck and shoulders, and in or around the ear when you chew, speak, or open your mouth wide
  • Fatigue of the jaw when chewing or speaking
  • Clenching your teeth compulsively
  • Grinding your teeth which is medically known as “bruxism”
  • Limited jaw opening
  • Muscle soreness of the head and neck
  • Dull earache
  • Ringing of the ears which is medically known as “tinnitus”
  • Depression

How to Relieve TMJ & Ear Pain

If you are experiencing pain near your ear and the pain worsens when you try to eat or speak, you can take analgesics or anti-inflammatories and apply moist heat along with some therapies to ease the pain temporarily.

When the pain lasts for more than one week persistently it may be best to seek a professional consultation. So who should you see first for ear pain? If TMJ ear pain is the only symptom you have and it is acute, it may be best to first consult with your primary care physician or an ENT to rule out an ear infection or internal ear condition. Common symptoms of a true ear condition are accompanied by fever, recent cold, discharge from the ear, redness of the ear, allergies, or hearing loss. However, if you have suffered from many of the other symptoms of TMJ dysfunction described above and your ear pain has been reoccurring an extended time, a TMJ specialist may be more appropriate to treat your condition.

There are a variety of treatment methods for treating TMJ ear pain. A treatment plan is customized based on the patient. There are several different treatment options available and the proper treatment is selected based on the patient’s symptoms and anatomy. Some common treatments for TMJ dysfunction are orthodontics, occlusal equilibration, restorative dentistry, occlusal guard and orthotics, botox treatment, and physical therapy. With the appropriate methods performed by an expert TMJ specialist, the painful symptoms will eventually fade.