One of the problems with TMJ is that it can be hard to diagnose. TMJ has so many symptoms that many of them overlap with other common conditions. People are commonly misdiagnosed with these other conditions and may be treated for them, unsuccessfully, for years before getting a proper diagnosis of TMJ.

One of these conditions that overlaps significantly with TMJ is an ear infection. Nearly 80% of people with TMJ report ear symptoms , with ear pain being the most common. If you have ear infection symptoms that persist, recur, or don’t respond to treatment, you may have TMJ.

man holds his ear due to pain

Ear Infections Are Uncommon with Adults

For children, ear infections are common. For adults, they are much less so. Even if you used to get ear infections commonly as a child, you’re less likely to get them now.

An ear infection occurs when bacteria or a virus makes it into your middle ear. They multiply there, and they can attack the tissue there and create fluid that clogs the ear and interferes with function.

Most often, an ear infection is an offshoot from another type of illness, such as a cold or flu.

Overlapping Symptoms

It’s understandable that people might confuse these two conditions because they can have some important overlapping ear symptoms. Both conditions can cause:

  • Ear pain
  • Diminished hearing
  • Tinnitus
  • Sensations of ear fullness

And if you have a history of ear infections, you’re especially likely to think you have an ear infection and may not consider that there could be another cause.

Ear Pain Is Common in TMJ

As we noted above, ear symptoms affect about 80% of people with TMJ. About 64% of people with TMJ report ear pain. In fact, some ENT (ear, nose, & throat) doctors say that TMJ is the most common cause of ear pain in adults.
The link between TMJ and ear pain goes beyond the simple fact that the temporomandibular joint is so close to the ear. In fact, the temporo- part of the joint is the temporal bone, which houses the inner ear. However, there are strong functional connections between these two systems. Two of the tiny bones that make up our hearing system (the malleus and incus) evolved from the jaw bones that let snakes and other reptiles dislocate their jaws to eat large prey. These bones retain some of their muscle connections to the jaw, so when the jaw isn’t functioning properly, it can interfere with ear function, too, leading not just to ear pain, but tinnitus, dizziness, and feelings of ear fullness.
Plus, the nerves that run from the ear to the brain might experience pressure from swollen or displaced jaw bones or muscles.

Distinguishing Conditions

However, there are signs you can look for that will help you distinguish between these two conditions. An ear infection is more likely if you:

  • Have or recently recovered from a cold or the flu
  • Experience discharge coming from your ear
  • Have a fever or localized warmth

Because an ear infection is likely related to a prior illness, having ear pain after another illness is an important factor. And TMJ isn’t going to cause ear discharge. Remember, discharge can come from your ear or from your eustachian tubes. A fever or localized warmth are related to the activity of bacteria or your body’s immune response.

  • Have been cleared by a doctor as not having an infection
  • Experience other TMJ symptoms such as headache or tooth damage
  • Have symptoms that relate to jaw activity

If you have ear symptoms, it’s not a bad idea to see an ENT about them. But if your ENT says you don’t have an ear infection, your next stop should be a TMJ dentist. Especially if you’re experiencing TMJ symptoms like headache, tooth damage, and more that aren’t associated with ear infection.

But perhaps you’ve never been to see a doctor because your symptoms always go away quickly. In that case, look for a pattern for when they recur. If they tend to recur after periods of intense jaw activity, then you should consider TMJ.

If you think that TMJ might be causing your ear pain and related symptoms , please call (248) 480-0085 today for an appointment with TMJ dentist Dr. Jeffrey S. Haddad at the Michigan Center for TMJ & Sleep Wellness.