Symptoms A-Z

What Causes Pain Behind the Ear? Learn More About Relief Options

Pain behind the ear can often be caused by infection, like Swimmer's ear, dental complications, or swollen lymph nodes behind the ear. Sharp pain behind the ear can also be associated with headaches, jaw pain, or pain located in the back of the neck. Read below for more information on causes and treatment options.

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Common Symptoms of Pain Behind the Ear

Most people think of ear pain as occurring deep within the ear, and indeed, that's often the case. However, the area behind the ear can also be vulnerable to painful ailments. Whether the pain is superficial or deep within, it can be bothersome and make daily activities like chewing difficult. In certain cases, hearing may also be impacted.

Other symptoms sometimes associated with pain behind the ear are

It's likely to also experience the following.

What Causes Pain Behind Your Ear?

Directly behind the ear is a bony structure called the mastoid. More superficially located are nerves, blood vessels and lymph nodes. Problems with any of these components may cause pain in the region. Nearby areas like the jaw joint, mouth or even the ear itself can also lead to pain behind the ear symptoms. As there are many potential causes, a thorough examination by a healthcare professional can help point to a cause more directly.

Infectious causes

Causes of pain behind the ear related to infection may include the following.

  • Swimmer's ear: Also called an outer ear infection or acute otitis externa, this usually occurs after getting water in the ear and may be associated with ear discharge and fever.
  • Middle ear infection: Also called otitis media, an infection occurs behind the eardrum, frequently along with a cold or the flu.
  • Mastoiditis: This is a dangerous infection of the bone behind the ear that usually occurs from the spread of an untreated ear infection.

Dental causes

Pain behind the ear can occur due to dental issues, such as the following.

  • Abscess: A collection of infected material in the mouth, usually from untreated tooth decay, can cause pain that is referred behind the ear.
  • Impacted teeth: People who do not have their wisdom teeth removed can experience pain if the teeth do not erupt normally. This can also happen to children getting their other adult teeth.
  • Jaw joint dysfunction: The temporomandibular joint (TMJ), located close to the ear, can be painfully strained or misaligned.
  • Jaw clenching: Some people clench their jaw when nervous, while others do so while asleep. This leads to stress on the jaw that can be painful.
  • Teeth grinding: This can also occur overnight and will lead to painful sensations around the jaw.

Other causes

Other various causes of pain behind the ear may be related to the following.

  • Swollen lymph nodes: Your body stores immune cells in lymph nodes, including some located behind the ear. They can become painful and swollen during an infection, or less commonly, because of an autoimmune disease or cancer.
  • Cyst: Sometimes a buildup of material can occur under the skin, leaving a bump that may be uncomfortable.
  • Nerve pain: The nerves that line your skull, including the area behind your ear, can become painfully inflamed in some conditions.
  • Wax buildup: Excess wax in the ear canal can be uncomfortable, and some people may feel pain that extends behind the ear.

2 Possible Pain Behind The Ear Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced pain behind the ear. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Temporomandibular joint (tmj) dysfunction disorder

Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction is often caused by a variety of factors, including daily habits, your teeth alignment, and even stress. It usually affects one side of the jaw, but in some people it can affect both sides. People with TMJ dysfunction will typically experience pain on one side of the face that is worse with chewing, yawning, or other movements of the jaw. With some simple changes in your daily habits and other at-home treatments, most people with TMJ dysfunction will experience relief of their symptoms within weeks.

Treatment for temporomandibular joint dysfunction usually includes avoiding eating hard foods or foods that require a lot of chewing. Good posture and relaxation techniques may help relieve tension in the muscles that connect to your temporomandibular joint. In people who clench or grind their teeth, a mouth guard worn at night (and fitted by your dentist) may also help relieve your symptoms. Pain relievers, like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), can also help.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: dizziness, pain, restricted movement, and clicking sounds from jaw, history of headaches, jaw pain, pain in the back of the neck

Symptoms that always occur with temporomandibular joint (tmj) dysfunction disorder: pain, restricted movement, and clicking sounds from jaw

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Pain Behind The Ear Symptom Checker

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Lymph node inflammation behind the ear

There are lymph nodes behind the ear. Lymph nodes are where your immune cells live, and when they become enlarged, it could be from a nearby infection, immune response, or even backlog of blood.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: pain behind the ear, swelling behind the ears

Symptoms that always occur with lymph node inflammation behind the ear: swelling behind the ears

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Treatments and Relief for Pain Behind Your Ear

Most common causes of pain will resolve within a few days. However, if the pain is severe or persists for some time, a doctor can offer more advanced treatments at the office.

At-home pain behind the ear treatment

Try the following remedies at home to help relieve ear pain.

  • Over-the-counter medications: Pain-relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or NSAIDs such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) are a good place to start for pain relief.
  • Warmth: A heating pad or warm compress can alleviate pain from in and around the ear.
  • Relaxation techniques: Tools like meditation and deep breathing can alleviate anxiety that often causes teeth grinding and jaw clenching.
  • Dry the ear: Whenever water or another liquid enters the ear canal, gently insert a soft towel wrapped around a finger to dry the area and prevent an infection.

When to see a doctor for pain behind the ear

A physician may prescribe the following remedies for pain behind the ear.

  • Antibiotics: A doctor may prescribe antibiotics if a bacterial infection is likely to blame for your pain.
  • Imaging: A CT scan or MRI can determine if an infection has spread to the area behind your ear, including the mastoid.
  • Surgery: In some cases, a surgeon will be required to remove an area of infection or a mass that may be causing your pain.
  • Biopsy: A doctor can take a small sample from your area of pain if there is a mass or swollen lymph node.
  • Professional ear cleaning: An ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor or some PCPs can use a special scope to inspect and clear the ear canal.
  • Mouth guard: A dentist can fit you with a protective covering for your teeth that prevents teeth grinding and reduces stress caused by jaw clenching.
  • Other dental work: If tooth decay or impaction is causing your pain, a dentist can best address the problem.

When pain behind the ear is an emergency

You should seek help without delay if you have:

  • High fever
  • Sudden onset, severe pain
  • Hearing loss
  • Redness or swelling that is spreading
  • An ear that suddenly sticks out farther than normal

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Pain Behind The Ear

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

  • Has your dentist or significant other ever told you that you grind your teeth in your sleep?
  • Are you experiencing a headache?
  • Do you hear a ringing or whistling sound no one else hears?
  • About your ear, do you feel a warm or fluid sensation in your ear?

The above questions are also covered by our A.I. Health Assistant.

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your pain behind the ear

Pain Behind The Ear Symptom Checker Statistics

People who have experienced pain behind the ear have also experienced:

  • 11% Ear Canal Pain
  • 8% Headache
  • 3% Pain In The Back Of The Neck

People who have experienced pain behind the ear were most often matched with:

  • 57% Lymph Node Inflammation Behind The Ear
  • 42% Temporomandibular Joint (Tmj) Dysfunction Disorder

People who have experienced pain behind the ear had symptoms persist for:

  • 43% Less than a week
  • 29% Less than a day
  • 12% Over a month

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

Pain Behind The Ear Symptom Checker

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Disclaimer: The article does not replace an evaluation by a physician. Information on this page is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.