Ear pain, medically known as otalgia, is a common symptom of a number of medical problems, not all of them directly related to the ear. Ear pain, which can be sharp, dull or burning, temporary or constant, presents more frequently in children than in adults. Many times the type of pain experienced serves as a diagnostic tool, assisting the physician in pinpointing the pain's cause.
The ear can be protected from pain by avoiding loud noises, and not putting objects into the ear canal.
Causes of Ear Pain
When a medical problem involving the ear is the cause of ear pain, the condition is known as primary otalgia. When ear pain results from a problem elsewhere in the body, the condition is known as secondary otalgia.
Middle-ear infections are a common cause of primary otalgia, and are the result of fluid buildup in the middle ear. When fluid does not drain properly from the ear through the Eustachian tube, it builds up, and the ear may become infected, causing pain or, possibly, hearing loss. Swelling of the Eustachian tube may be precipitated by a cold or allergy. Once fluid accumulates behind the tympanic membrane (eardrum), the pressure results in increasing pain. Although middle-ear infections are usually caused by bacteria, they can be viral or fungal in origin.
In addition to changes in ear pressure, the following may cause ear pain:
- Impacted earwax
- Infected cyst in ear canal
- Injury from object insertion
- Perforated eardrum
- Swimmer's ear
- Nerve pain (trigeminal neuralgia)
Not infrequently, medical problems in other parts of the body may be responsible for ear pain. These conditions include:
- Arthritis of the jaw
- Sinus infection
- Sore throat
- Temporomandibular joint syndrome, or TMJ
- Tooth infection
Although alleviating ear pain is important, so is determining its cause; doing so requires a medical examination. In addition to examining the inside of the ear with a thin probe called an otoscope, a doctor will evaluate any other symptoms. If there is fluid leaking from the ear, a sample may be analyzed. If a neurological problem is suspected, an MRI scan or CT scan may be performed.
Treatment of Ear Pain
Treatment for ear pain depends upon its cause. Treatment options may include:
- Equalization of ear pressure
- Removal of earwax
- Administration of oral or topical antibiotics
- Use of antihistamines or nasal decongestants
- Surgical repair
For children who have repeated ear infections resulting in chronic pain, ear tubes may be surgically implanted to promote fluid drainage.