There’s nothing worse than that feeling that your ears won’t pop. Ear pain can become unbearable quickly, so it’s crucial to figure out the cause of your ear canal distress.
When adults suffer from ear pain, it’s either the result of an ear infection or a TMJ disorder. Since you’re here reading this article, you’re probably trying to figure out what’s going on in your ears. Let’s get to the bottom of what’s bothering you.
What Exactly Is TMJ?
TMJ is an acronym for your temporomandibular joint, also known as your jaw joint. The term “TMJ” is often used to describe issues associated with this joint and is used in place of TMD (Temporomandibular disorders). For this article, when we say “TMJ,” we’re referring to the joint itself, and “TMD” or “TMJ disorders” will deal with the causes of jaw pain.
The TMJ is responsible for moving your jaw forwards and backward so you can do fun activities like eating and talking. Pinning down the cause of TMJ disorders can be difficult, as it’s often hard to determine how it originated. More often than not, TMD occurs in conjunction with other issues like bruxism, arthritis, or a misaligned bite.
According to a study reported by the American Family Physician, TMJ disorders are the most common cause of ear pain when an ear examination shows nothing abnormal. Other common causes of ear pain (when the source of the problem is not the ear) include other dental issues, pharyngitis or tonsilitis, and cervical spine arthritis.
What singles out TMJ as the culprit is pain and clicking noises in your jaw joint, especially when talking or chewing. 80% of people who suffer from TMD experience ear pain or tenderness at some point.
Symptoms of TMJ Disorders
TMD symptoms can manifest themselves in various ways, and your pain can be internal or external. A few symptoms associated with TMD include:
- Jaw tension and pain
- A clicking sound in the TMJ when opening or closing your mouth
- Lockjaw or jaw clenching
- Teeth clenching
- Soreness along your head and jawline
- Sensitive teeth
- Ringing in the ears
- Ear pain (inside or outside of the ear canal)
Whether you have one or more of these symptoms, it’s essential to talk to your doctor or dentist about relieving some of the tension in your jaw.
Is It an Ear Infection or TMJ Disorder?
When adults experience ear pain, their minds immediately jump to an ear infection. The pain is centered around the ear, so naturally, that would make the most sense.
If you put your fingers on one or both of your TMJs, you can see how close the joint is to your ears. Pressure in the TMJ results in inflammation of the auditory canal. When your auditory canal gets inflamed, it’s possible to develop tinnitus (a ringing sensation in the ears).
If you are experiencing ear pain in conjunction with other TMD symptoms, your TMJ is likely out of whack. However, you still need to visit a doctor to rule out an ear infection because the symptoms of many ear infections are similar to those of TMD.
An ear infection is initially caused by swelling in the nasal passage or sinuses. When your body is battling an illness, virus, or bacteria, your middle ear can fill up with fluids. Ear fluids with nowhere to go means an infection. If you’re running a fever, getting over being sick, or have stuff coming out of your ear, you have an ear infection.
If you have ear pain with no illness in sight and your doctor doesn’t see anything in your ears, then a TMJ disorder is to blame.
Treating TMJ Disorders
With ear infections, you can take an antibiotic or ride it out. Treating TMD is not as simple, but it will go away with the proper TLC.
Take Medication or Get Injections
You can take over-the-counter painkillers to ease the pain of your TMJ. If your pain is severe, your doctor may recommend a prescription-strength drug to reduce inflammation or relax your muscle. Some patients have found success with Botox or corticosteroid injections to relieve jaw tension.
Participate in Physical Therapy
Whether you consult a professional physical therapist or you stretch at home, you can strengthen your jaw muscles and take some of the pressure off of your TMJ. Healthline offers 9 exercises you can do to help your TMJ out.
Break Bad Habits
If you’re a chronic gum chewer or fingernail-biter, reducing this repeated rigid motion of your jaw can ease the symptoms of TMD. Many doctors also recommend eating more soft foods or cutting your food into smaller pieces to keep your jaw from working too hard.
Use A Dental Night Guard
Wearing a mouthguard while you sleep is a noninvasive, simple way to reduce your jaw pain. You have to sleep for many hours each night anyway, so who can it hurt? Your partner will thank you for not keeping them up to the wee hours of the morning with the sound of your teeth grinding.
If you want instant gratification, you can pick up a generic nightguard from your local drugstore. But you should really think of this as a stepping stone mouthguard until you can get a custom nightguard made.
Your dentist can fit you with a custom mouthguard, but mouthguards from your dentist are often overpriced. You shouldn’t have to break the bank to protect your jaw.
Just by wearing a mouthguard each night, you can experience a decrease in shoulder pain, neck pain, lockjaw, headaches, jaw tension, and jaw pain. A generic guard will help marginally, but a custom mouthguard will provide the most overall relief.
Ready for TMJ relief? Let’s get Cheeky.