Ear pain is one of the worst kinds that we can experience. It affects everything from being able to hear to maintaining balance, and can be miserable to deal with during the course of a normal day. While ear pain is sometimes connected to ear infections, a less well-known but very common source of ear discomfort in adults is temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder (or TMD).
What is Temporomandibular Joint Disorder?
TMD is sometimes described as a repetitive strain injury and is a form of tendonitis that can result from many things, or even a combination of them— mouth injury to stress.
TMJ pain can lead to the face and neck muscles tightening too, which can lead to even more problems like migraines headaches, irritated skin on the face and head, and the sensations similar to a sinus infection.
TMD is sometimes caused by malocclusion, or a misalignment of the teeth. Biting can cause stress in the jaw joint when teeth do not line up correctly. People with TMD also tend to grind or clench their teeth, which can also lead to too much or uneven stress on the jaw joint.
The reality is the dental profession has only recently ben able to accurately evaluate proper physiology in their patients and while not all dentists can see past the hard tissues like teeth, the dentists who have included neuromuscular training are likely so see the connections.
With such an array of potential causes and symptoms, it’s no wonder that ear pain is a common symptom of TMD. The ear and its sensitive anatomy are in close proximity to the jaw joint and can experience stress brought on by TMD’s many manifestations.
Why Does Jaw Pain Make My Ears Hurt?
It’s all about proximity. The temporomandibular joint is located very near the middle ear and the ear canal. The muscles supporting the TMJ have double duty in that they also supporting the nerves of the ear.
4 Ways to Manage TMD Symptoms
Managing TMD helps diminish unpleasant symptoms like ear pain. Check out these TMD-fighting habits that can bring some relief to your ear(s) as well.
These are stop-gap measures since the real goal is to get the system fixed so that the pain doesn’t come back.
- Eat a soft diet. Anything crunchy or that requires a lot of chewing is off the menu for now. Noodles, applesauce, berries, well-cooked vegetables, and eggs are good choices when trying to take it easy on the temporomandibular joint.
- This is a short-term approach as the ideal nutrition and diet is generally impossible when on a soft-food diet.
- Avoid gum. Any sort of chewing that is not necessary should really be avoided when experiencing TMD symptoms. That includes non-mealtime treats like gum. Try letting a mint dissolve on your tongue instead.
- Wear a mouth guard. These are especially important if you grind your teeth while asleep—you could be contributing to your jaw and ear pain without knowing it. Custom-built mouth guards created by specially-trained TMD dentists will provide greater relief than those sold in drug stores. This appliance should be built to support proper physiology and function in the system and so should be tackled by a dentist trained in a neuromuscular approach. It is critical that the physiology of the system be returned to optimal for healing to begin.
- Take anti-inflammatory pain medication. You can take over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen or seek prescription strength from the doctor. This is also very much a short-term band-aid. The long term approach of taking a pill to correct poor physiology creates more problems than it solves.
Can TMD be Cured?
In addition to the tips above, there are many treatment suggestions for TMD depending on your specific causes and symptoms.
However, in the end the key will be to restore proper function to the system. We are designed to work well, and if in a state of dysfunction, it is imperative that the treating dentist has an appreciation of proper physiologic function of both hard tissues and soft. It turns out that 90% of pain in the body comes from muscles and it is no different in the head and neck.
If you are experiencing ear, neck, face, or jaw pain due to possible TMD, make an appointment with a neuromuscular dentist to explore the best treatment options for you. By digging deeper to understand where your pain is coming from and applying appropriate treatment, you’ll be saying good-bye to ear pain in no time.