You may remember having ear infections as a child. The pain, lightheadedness, and nausea that often accompany ear pain are hard to forget. For adults, ear infections are much less common, yet adults go to their doctors with ear pain every day but it’s often not because of an infection. Even in children, ear pain may not necessarily be a result of an ear infection. More and more primary care physicians are finding a link between TMJ and ear pain. Understanding how these two conditions are linked can be the key to successful treatment for your ear pain.
What is TMJ?
TMJ is the common abbreviation for temporomandibular joint disorder. TMJ pain can be severe enough to interfere with daily life. The anatomy of the jaw is what makes it one of the strongest joints in the body. However, it also makes it the most vulnerable to stress and wear.
The temporal bone of your skull (located just below the temples on either side of your head) attaches to the mandible, the strong bone of the lower jaw, with a small disc of cartilage. This attachment allows you to eat, talk, laugh – any function that is necessary for the jaw to freely open and close.
TMJ occurs when there is damage, swelling, or abnormalities in the cartilage disc or any of the muscles or tendons in the area of the temporomandibular joint.
These days TMJ is now referred to medically as TMD (temporomandibular disorder), a disorder occurring in the area instead of just abbreviating the name of the joint. Many, however, still commonly refer to pain or problems in this area as TMJ.
What causes TMJ?
Common causes of TMJ include:
- Trauma to the jaw
- Teeth grinding
- Improper bite
- Excessive gum chewing
- Some types of arthritis
Risk factors for TMJ include:
- Gender: Women are more likely to suffer from TMJ and also less likely to find relief with pain medication
- Age: Women in childbearing year (18-44) have an increased risk, but men have the same level of risk regardless of age
- Genetics: Genetic stress response, psychological health, and propensity to inflammation play a part in risk level for TMJ
- Pain tolerance: People with a lower tolerance for pain have an increased risk of developing TMJ
- Previous pain conditions: TMJ may accompany other chronic pain conditions
What are common TMJ symptoms?
TMJ has a number of symptoms that are hallmarks of this disorder:
- Jaw pain: Many people will wake with jaw pain or sore muscles from clenching their jaws or grinding their teeth
- Jaw clicking and popping: Others might experience a popping or clicking noise in their jaw, or the jaw might lock (dislocate) open or closed
- Head and neck pain: Still others have frequent head and neck pain as a result, even leading to migraines
Can TMJ cause ear pain?
TMJ and ear pain is one of the most common symptoms that people may not recognize as part of the disorder, with 80% of TMJ patients reporting ear pain. Associated as it is with ear infection, TMJ and ear pain also go hand-in-hand. Why? As they say in real estate, the reason is simple: location, location, location.
The temporomandibular joint is located in close proximity to the middle ear and the ear canal. The muscles in this area support not only the temporomandibular joint and all of its actions but also the nerves of the ear. As the canary in the coal mine, ear pain may be a first sign that something is wrong with the temporomandibular joint, especially if the ear canal looks healthy and