It’s quite common for adults to visit the doctor’s office with complaints of pain coming from the ear. It’s equally common for that pain to be quickly associated with an adult ear infection, either from the patient or the primary care doctor making a fast assumption. An ear infection diagnosis makes sense, given that the discomfort and achiness seems to be radiating from the area around the ear. However, patients and doctors alike are often surprised when the problem isn’t directly related to the ear at all.
For most adult patients, ear pain is connected to issues with the temporo-mandibular joint, or TMJ. Because of the close proximity of TMJ to the ear canal and the middle ear, the muscles, ligaments, and nerves supporting the joint may be adversely affected which ultimately leads to ear pain. Some patients experience frequent discomfort that has lasted for several weeks while others may feel pain intermittently. When TMJ is an issue, hearing may not be affected at all, but pain that radiates to the ear may be more present at night or first thing in the morning, or when the individual eats or yawns. There are several reasons why TMJ causes ear pain in adults, and it is important for those who work directly with patients to understand these causes to avoid misdiagnosis from the start.
Common Factors with TMJ Disorder
Adults who present with ear pain and subsequent TMJ disorder often have some cause behind the issue. Most commonly, individuals have molars that do not fit well together, known as malocclusion; when this happens, stress of the jaw bone can be the result. An uneven force or abnormal bite is applied to one or both joints which causes joint disorder and ongoing discomfort. For others, TMJ disorder may be the result of bruxism, or the grinding or clenching of the teeth. Whether patients clench during the day or grind during a night’s sleep, the involuntary behaviour has the potential to lead to TMJ issues.
In other cases of ear pain caused by TMJ disorder, a dental procedure may be the culprit. Gum cleaning or a root canal requires that the mouth be held open for an extended period of time. This can put stress on the TMJ, leading to stressed ligament strain that causes pain around the ear as well as ringing in the ear for some patients. Similarly, a broken tooth or nerve damage in the mouth can lead to pain in the area of the ear, transferred from the jaw. Although there are several reasons why TMJ disorder may take place, timely treatment is beneficial in reducing discomfort and pain.
Misdiagnosing Ear Pain
Whether ear pain is presented in a primary care, dental, or specialist setting, the reality for many patients is an initial misdiagnosis. A solicitor from a medical negligence firm that handles countless cases of ear, nose and throat misdiagnosis each year explains that pain can travel from an affected area, like TMJ, to other areas, like the face or ear. This is due to the complexity of the nervous system, and the fact that various nerve signals carry pain indicators from place to place. Misdiagnosis can be the result form some patients which ultimately leads to unnecessary or inefficient treatment suggestions. Individuals who are diagnosed with an ear infection when the underlying cause is actually rooted in a TMJ disorder may experience ongoing pain and discomfort that simply isn’t necessary.
Treating ear pain that is caused by TMJ disorders is often a simple task. Patients are recommended to consume only soft foods for a period of time, and to avoid chewing for as long as possible. The application of slight heart to the jaw area is helpful in reducing pain and discomfort that may radiate to the ear in conjunction with relaxing chewing activities. Some patients may require a prescription-strength anti-inflammatory medication for a few days up to one week to help decrease swelling. For those with TMJ disorders caused by clenching or grinding the teeth, dental professionals may suggest a mouthguard or bite plate to be worn to reduce the damage done to the mouth and jaw. Overall, patients can relieve the stress and discomfort caused by TMJ disorders relatively quickly, but it requires the right diagnosis from the start.