Ear pain is an uncomfortable sensation of discomfort, pressure, or burning in the ear area. It can manifest in various ways and have varying intensities. The causes also tend to be diverse; let's explore them in this article.
Ear pain is technically referred to as otalgia and is a diagnosis listed in the International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, 10th Revision (ICD-10). Most likely, each one of us has experienced it at some point. It's a relatively common symptom across a wide range of issues. It can appear as a symptom of a cold, flu, or even after swimming, jumping, or diving in water.
Therefore, ear pain can have multiple causes and manifestations. Among them are ear inflammations, such as middle ear infection, which can be caused by infection or exposure to drafts. Middle ear infections are more frequent in children but can also occur in adults.
Furthermore, ear pain might be related to other issues like headaches or referred pain from the cervical spine. These causes can result in discomfort in the ear and accompany various other difficulties.
Especially in young children, ear pain is often associated with the aforementioned upper respiratory tract infection, such as a common cold. Middle ear infection is one of the frequent complications in children with a cold.
Intensity and Sensations of Pain
Some common manifestations of ear pain may include aching or pulsating pressure in the ear. This is the most frequent symptom of ear pain. It presents as acute and intense pain or pressure in the ear. The pain can be dull, throbbing, or sharp.
The patient experiences pain of varying intensity; subjectively, they may report both strong and mild pain, as well as sensations of pricking, stabbing, pulsating, or burning. Similarly, the pain may fluctuate or present itself on a constant level.
Additionally, an unpleasant pressure, ringing, buzzing, and whistling in the ears can occur. The patient might also perceive unnatural auditory stimuli.
Just as ear pain can radiate to other areas, the reverse situation can also arise. Pain can radiate into the ear from another location. It's common for pain to radiate into the ear from the cervical spine, during headaches, inflammation of the salivary gland, dental issues, tooth decay, gum inflammation, after tooth extraction, or from the temporomandibular joint.
Worse sensations during chewing or swallowing can also occur. Ear pain may worsen with movements of the chewing muscles or during swallowing, as these actions can affect the pressure in the middle ear.
Deteriorated hearing is also one of the signs of ear issues. Some individuals might experience worsening hearing or a sensation of having a plugged or "stuffy" ear. Redness or swelling can also be associated. In certain types of inflammation, redness or swelling of the external ear can occur.
Ear discharge similarly indicates a problem. It could be due to an infection or another issue. In addition to these manifestations, other symptoms might be present, such as fever, throat discomfort, fatigue, nausea, or sleep problems, depending on the cause of the ear pain.
Primary and secondary otalgia
Otalgia, i.e. ear pain, occurs quite often in different age categories. It can affect newborns, young children, older children, adolescents, adults and seniors. There are two main groups of otalgia, primary and secondary otalgia.
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Primary otalgia means that the cause of the pain originates directly within the ear. This includes pathological findings within the ear and its nearby anatomical structures. Examples of primary otalgia include ear inflammations such as middle ear infection (otitis media), external ear canal inflammation (otitis externa), or ear infections.
Secondary otalgia means that the cause of the pain is outside the ear and its adjacent structures. This implies that no pathological findings are detected upon examining the ear. Secondary otalgia can be caused by other issues such as headaches, dental pain, jaw problems, cervical spine issues, or may be a manifestation of other illnesses.
Ear Inflammation – Otitis
Ear inflammation, also known as otitis, is a condition where inflammation occurs in various parts of the ear. There are three main types of otitis: external ear canal inflammation (otitis externa), middle ear inflammation (otitis media), and inner ear inflammation (otitis interna).
External ear canal inflammation is inflammation in the external ear canal, which extends from the outer part of the ear to the eardrum. It manifests with pain, itching, redness, and swelling. A sensation of pressure or fullness in the ear, ear discharge, and worsening of hearing can also occur. This type of ear inflammation can be caused by infection or irritation of the external ear canal.
Middle ear inflammation is an inflammatory process in the middle ear, located behind the eardrum. It presents with ear pain, reduced hearing, a sensation of pressure in the ear, fluid discharge from the ear, and sometimes fever. This type of ear inflammation is more common in children due to their shorter, horizontally oriented ear canal, which facilitates the penetration of infection into the middle ear.
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Otitis media is inflammation of the membranes and fluid in the inner ear. It is manifested by intense pain in the ear, dizziness, nausea, balance problems and impaired hearing. This type of ear infection can be caused by an infection or a virus.
Draft ear is a condition where the ear is exposed to the flow of cold air or drafts. This condition can cause various symptoms and discomfort in the ear. It is mainly characterized by pain, discomfort, or pressure in the ear. Some individuals might also experience worsened hearing, a sensation of fullness in the ear, or a feeling of being plugged.
Draft ear can be caused by several factors, such as exposure to cold air, drafts, wind, air conditioning, or water. These factors can result in the ear being subjected to a sudden decrease in temperature, which may disrupt the normal temperature and moisture balance in the ear.
Symptoms of draft ear can be temporary and subside on their own. However, if the symptoms persist or worsen, it is advisable to seek medical attention for examination and diagnosis. A doctor can recommend suitable treatment methods, such as warm compresses, pain-relieving medications, or other appropriate measures to alleviate symptoms and improve the condition of the ear.
Ear congestion is the sensation when pressure or discomfort arises in the ear due to an imbalance between the external pressure and the inner ear. This condition can be temporary and might manifest with the aforementioned unpleasant sensations in the ear. It can also appear as a feeling of a plugged ear and may be accompanied by sounds like ringing, buzzing, or humming.
Ear congestion often occurs, for instance, during takeoff and landing in an airplane, when diving into deep water, or even while driving a car or riding a bus while ascending or descending hills. Ear congestion can also arise during a cold, flu, or ear infections.
If we struggle to relieve ear congestion, it can escalate to discomfort or even pain.
So, how can we alleviate ear congestion? We can attempt it through chewing or swallowing. Chewing gum, drinking water, or just having saliva in our mouths can be helpful. Blowing out air with our nose blocked and mouth closed might also provide relief. Additionally, opening the mouth as wide as possible can aid in relieving congested ears.