Ear and Neck Pain: Causes and Treatments for Pain Behind Ear

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Ear and Neck Pain: Causes and Treatments for Pain Behind Ear
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Ear and neck pain can cause a lot of frustration and affect your daily activities. Neck pain behind your ear can be associated with a throbbing headache, a painful ear infection, or problem with your jaw. Pain behind the ear may feel like a constant dull throb at the back of your head or you could experience sharp, shooting pains from your neck to your temples. Ear and neck pain can also cause swelling, tenderness, and stiffness behind your ear and down your neck.

Treating the symptoms of ear and neck pain on the right side or left side usually requires addressing the underlying cause.

Sometimes, natural remedies like warm olive oil can help to loosen ear wax and reduce ear pain. Or, a warm compress can help to relieve tension and tightness from the neck area behind your ear. You could also try various massage techniques to ease headache pain that is making your ears and neck hurt.

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In this article, I will look at the many reasons for pain behind the ear and down your neck. At the end of the article, you will find many ways to treat pain behind the ear.

Symptoms of Pain Behind the Ear and Down the Neck

Pain down the neck and behind the ear is not a condition in itself. Ear and neck pain are usually symptomatic of other health issues and will usually be accompanied by other symptoms. For example, an ear infection can cause neck pain behind the ear on one side of your head and could be accompanied by swelling or discharge from your right or left ear.

Associated symptoms of pain behind the ear and neck can include:

  • Throbbing pain in the neck and on one side of your head
  • Shock-like pains at the top of your neck and behind your ear
  • Sensitive scalp and tenderness at the base of the skull
  • Redness of the ear or behind the ear that is sore to touch
  • Soreness when turning your head from side to side
  • Tingling sensation down your right or left arm
  • Intense pain from your jaw that extends behind one ear
  • An aching toothache that radiates pain to your ear
  • Increased sensitivity to light along with a thumping headache

Causes of Ear and Neck Pain

To know how to get rid of the symptoms of neck and ear pain, it’s important to know what could be causing it. Let’s look in more detail at the reasons for mild to severe pain that affects both the ear and neck.

Ear infection

An ear infection can cause inflammation and throbbing pain because of a buildup of fluid in the ear. This type of ear infection can also cause discharge and persistent pain behind the ear.

Dr. Mary Lowth on Patient.info says that ear infections usually cause nagging pain in just one ear but they can affect both ears at the same time. The inflammation can also cause the glands in your neck to swell and become sore. Other symptoms of an ear infection can include:1

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To help prevent ear infections, never use cotton buds to clear wax from inside your ears. This can push wax further into the middle ear and also cause infections in the ear. You can also try these natural treatments for an ear infection. At the end of the article, you can find out how to unclog wax from your ears safely.

If you feel that your ears are blocked, you can try some easy ways to unpop your ears quickly.

Cervicogenic headache

Burning pains on one side of your neck and side of your head could be a sign of a cervicogenic headache. These types of headaches can arise from issues with the nerves at the base of your skull.

According to the journal Pain Medicine, cervicogenic headaches can cause sharp pain in the ear and neck. Some people describe the pain as an intense pressure on one side of the neck, ear pain, and painful sensation on the same side of the face.2

Other symptoms of a cervicogenic headache that can accompany ear and neck pain are:

  • A migraine-like headache on one side of the head
  • Sore neck when moving your head
  • Tenderness of the upper spine

Please read this article for advice on how to treat headaches naturally and what you can do for migraine pain.

Occipital neuralgia

Irritated nerves that run up your neck to your scalp can cause severe sharp pain at the back of your head behind your ear if they become inflamed. This condition is called occipital neuralgia.

Researchers from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke say that occipital neuralgia can cause intense pain at the base of the skull. The pain is usually felt behind one ear and in the upper neck. The head pain can then spread to your temples.

Other symptoms of occipital neuralgia can include:

  • Increased sensitivity of the scalp that makes it tender to touch
  • Difficulty to be in bright light
  • Headache pain behind one eye

Usually, getting plenty of rest and being in a dark room can improve the painful symptoms of occipital neuralgia.3

Swimmer’s ear (Otitis externa)

Swimmer’s ear (Otitis externa) is an infection of the outer ear canal that can make your neck and ear sore at the same time.

Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that mild cases of swimmer’s ear have all the symptoms of an ear infection. However, if the infection becomes more severe, persistent pain may radiate from your infected ear to your neck, side of your head, or face. You may notice swelling and redness around your outer ear.4

Because middle ear infections can cause many complications, you should see a doctor if you think you have swimmer’s ear.

Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ, TMD)

Your temporomandibular joint is where your jaw connects to your skull. Because this is very close to your ear, TMJ can cause ear pain that may also spread to your neck.

Dr. John P. Cuhna on MedicineNet says that neck function is connected to your jaw. For example, poor posture in your neck can put strain on the function of your jaw. Inflammation in the TMJ can then cause pain in one or both ears.5

Some other symptoms of TMJ can include:

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At the end of this article, you can find some methods to relieve ear and neck aches and pains caused by TMJ.

Sinusitis

Your sinuses are located at the front of your face behind the forehead, nose, and cheeks. Inflammation of your sinuses can cause a pounding headache as well as neck pain behind the ear.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School say that pressure in the head from sinusitis can cause deep pain behind the forehead. This can also affect the back of the head and cause pressure-like pain behind the ears and upper neck pain.6

Sinusitis can also cause other symptoms along with a nagging headache:

You can try these home remedies for sinus infection, or try some great essential oils that can help to clear your sinuses and break up phlegm.

Throat infection

Viruses that cause a throat infection can also affect other parts of your head, like your ears and upper neck.

Usually, a mild throat infection causes a scratching sensation at the back of your throat. This can be accompanied by difficulty swallowing, coughing, and sneezing. According to Dr. Steven Doer on MedicineNet, the throat infection can also cause an earache, tender lymph nodes in the neck, and white patches on the tonsils.7

At the end of the article, you can find out how to make a simple salt water gargle to get rid of a sore throat quickly.

Tooth infection

A tooth abscess that causes an infection can also cause a sensation of pain behind your ear.

According to doctors from the Mayo Clinic, the throbbing pain from toothache can radiate to your neck, ear, or jawbone. Depending on the extent of the infection, you may also have swollen, tender lymph nodes in your neck.8

Although a tooth abscess usually requires treatment from a dentist, there is much you can do to prevent cavities naturally. For example, did you know that licorice can help to fight tooth decay? You can also use a salt water mouth rinse to help remove harmful bacteria from your mouth.

Arthritis

Arthritis of the cervical spine may also be a reason for suffering from a chronic earache and a sore, stiff neck.

According to Dr. Zacharia Isaac, an expert in rheumatology, cervical osteoarthritis (spondylosis) can be connected with neck pain and ear pain.9 In fact, the journal Headache reported that treating the effects of cervical spine arthritis can result in getting rid of neck-related ear pain in some patients.10

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Try using omega 3 supplements or turmeric in your diet to help relieve joint inflammation and pain. Some other natural ways to manage arthritis pain can include avoiding foods that are known to aggravate inflammatory conditions.

Other Causes of Pain Behind Ear

There are many conditions that cause pain behind the ear and neck pain near the base of the skull. However, there are a few painful conditions that generally only cause pain at the back of the ear.

Mastoiditis

The mastoid process is a bony structure that is located just behind your ear. Mastoid bone pain can cause a number of painful symptoms right behind your left ear or right ear.

Doctors from the National Health Service report that mastoiditis can be a complication of a middle ear infection. When the mastoid process becomes inflamed, the area behind the ear becomes painful, tender, and red. You may even notice a protruding lump at the back of your ear.11

To treat back of the ear pain caused by mastoiditis, you should see a doctor because the infection can become very serious.

Foreign object in ear

Getting something stuck in your ear that shouldn’t be there can cause varying degrees of pain behind the ear. The foreign object could even cause an ear infection to develop which can then cause ear and neck pain.

Dr. Kenneth Buccino on eMedicineHealth says that pieces of food, beads, insects and even an accumulation of earwax can cause discomfort in the ear. Pain in the ear is usually the most common symptom. However, coughing, bleeding, or nausea can also accompany ear pain in the affected ear.12

Less Common Causes of Headache Behind Ear

On some occasions, mild to severe pain behind the ear can be due to a few rare causes.

Respiratory syncytial virus

The journal Auris, Nasus, Larynx reported that respiratory syncytial virus can affect the airways and also cause an acute ear infection.13 Ear infections can result in pain behind one ear as well as neck pain and a headache.

Thyroid disorder

Problems with your thyroid function may result in pain behind the ear and in the neck area. Doctors from the Cleveland Clinic report that inflammation of the thyroid often results in fever, ear pain, neck pain, and other symptoms of an overactive thyroid.14

Ear and Neck Pain on the Right Side

Certain conditions can cause ear and neck pain only on the right side. For example, pain in the right side of the neck under the ear could be a symptom of a cervicogenic headache, infection in your right ear, or occipital neuralgia.

Ear and Neck Pain on the Left Side

Usually, if you just feel pain behind your left ear and down your neck, it is for the same reasons as right-sided ear pain. Many conditions that affect the ears or cervical spine generally affect just one side of your head.

Can an Ear Infection Cause Neck Pain?

Yes, an ear infection can cause neck pain. Doctors from the National Health Service report that ear infections can affect the lymph node in the neck. An ear infection in one ear can cause the glands in your neck to suddenly become tender or very sore.14

Treatment for Pain Behind Ear

It’s important to remember that pain behind your ear or at the base of your skull is usually symptomatic of another health issue. Therefore, true earache relief comes when you treat the underlying cause.

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However, there are some ways to reduce the pain behind your ear and neck naturally.

Massage for ear and neck pain

Massaging the back of your neck can help to relieve neck and ear pain that is caused by cervical spine arthritis, occipital neuralgia, or headaches.

According to the International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork, regular massaging the cervical spine can help to relieve chronic neck pain. Massage techniques can alleviate the symptoms of spinal degenerative diseases.15

How to massage your neck to relieve pain:

  1. Mix 5 drops lavender essential oil, 5 drops peppermint oil, and 2 drop eucalyptus oil in 1-oz, sweet almond oil or other carrier oil.
  2. Use the massage oil blend to rub into the area at the base of your skull, top of your neck, and behind your ear.
  3. Gently massage the top of your neck for 2-3 minutes to help relieve neck pain behind your ear.

Tennis ball for relieving neck and ear pain

You can also relieve headaches that cause neck pain and pain behind your ear by using a couple of tennis balls. The effect of massaging the cervical spine with tennis balls helps to release tension at the back of your neck and treat a pounding headache.

This is what you should do:

  1. Take a clean sock and put 2 tennis balls in it. Secure tightly.
  2. You need to lie on your back with the top of your neck resting between the 2 tennis balls in the sock.
  3. In a gentle motion, rock your head from side to side to help release tension.
  4. Repeat step 3, but this time, move your head back and forth.
  5. Repeat step 3 and 4 for a few minutes to help relax your neck muscles and ease pain at the back of your ear.

Cold or warm compress

You can use a cold compress or a heating pad to help get relief from any type of pain behind the ear or neck pain.

For example, doctors on the website Drugs.com say that a cold or warm compress may help to get rid of pain from an ear infection. You could try alternating between both to help get rid of mastoid bone pain due to an earache.16

How to use heat for ear and neck pain:

  1. Dip a clean washcloth in hot (but not boiling) water and wring out the excess.
  2. Press on the painful area behind your ear or on your neck for 15 to 20 minutes.
  3. Dip in warm water as needed to keep the washcloth warm.
  4. Use 3 or 4 times a day to help reduce pain in your ear or neck.

How to use ice for pain behind ear and neck:

  1. Put some crushed ice in a plastic sealable bag and cover with a towel.
  2. Place the cold compress on your sore ear or sore neck to help reduce swelling and pain.
  3. Apply for 15 minutes at a time.
  4. Use 3 or 4 times a day to help relieve discomfort from behind your ear and neck.
  5. After 2 or 3 days when any swelling has gone down, you should switch to a heating pad.

Olive oil for pain behind the ear

You can use olive oil as a natural medicine to soften ear wax and help treat a mild infection of the outer ear. Warm olive oil helps to loosen and dissolve ear wax to naturally unblock your ears.

How to use olive oil for earache:

  1. Slightly warm the olive oil.
  2. Put some of the warm olive oil into a dropper.
  3. Lie on your side and put some drops of the olive oil remedy in your sore ear.
  4. Let the remedy go to work for a few minutes.
  5. Put a cotton ball on your ear, sit up, and remove excess wax from your outer ear.
  6. Repeat a few times a day until the pain behind your ear has gone for good.

You can also use food grade 3% hydrogen peroxide to help clear a mild outer ear infection that is causing you pain.

When to See a Doctor

If home remedies don’t help to alleviate neck pain and pain behind your ear, you should visit your doctor.

Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that circumstances when it’s advisable to get ear and neck pain checked out include:17, 18

  • Ear pain or pain behind the ear that lasts for more than a day or two
  • The ear pain on the right side or left side is very severe
  • You notice discharge from your ear
  • You have a severe headache and a stiff neck
  • Pain from the base of your skull radiates down one arm or leg
  • Neck pain behind the ear continues to worsen

Read my other related articles:

Medical Sources

  1. PatientInfo. Ear infection.
  2. Pain Med. 2014 March; 3(1): 473-478.
  3. NINDS. Occipital neuralgia information page.
  4. MayoClinic. Swimmer’s ear.
  5. MedicineNet. Temporomandibular joint syndrome.
  6. HealthHarvard. Acute sinusitis.
  7. MedicineNet. Sore throat causes.
  8. MayoClinic. Tooth abscess.
  9. UpToDate. Neck pain (beyond the basics).
  10. Headache.1991 Nov;31(10):682-3.
  11. NHS. Mastoiditis.
  12. eMedicineHealth. Foreign body in ear.
  13. Auris Nasus Larynx.2004 Dec;31(4):341-5.
  14. NHSInform. Swollen glands.
  15. Int J Ther Massage Bodywork. 2012; 5(3): 41–46.
  16. DrugsCom. Ear infection.
  17. MayoClinic. Neck pain.
  18. MayoClinic. Ear infection.
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