Earache: A Merck Manual of Patient Symptoms podcast
Earache may occur in isolation or along with discharge or, rarely, hearing loss.
Pain may come from a process within the ear itself or may be referred to the ear from a nearby nonotologic disorder.
Pain from the ear itself may result from a pressure gradient between the middle ear and outside air, from local inflammation, or both. A middle ear pressure gradient usually involves eustachian tube obstruction, which inhibits equilibration between middle ear pressure and atmospheric pressure and also allows fluid to accumulate in the middle ear. Otitis media causes painful inflammation of the tympanic membrane (TM) as well as pain from increased middle ear pressure (causing bulging of the TM).
Referred pain can result from disorders in areas innervated by cranial nerves responsible for sensation in the external and middle ear (5th, 9th, and 10th). Specific areas include the nose, paranasal sinuses, nasopharynx, teeth, gingiva, temporomandibular joint (TMJ), mandible, parotid glands, tongue, palatine tonsils, pharynx, larynx, trachea, and esophagus. Disorders in these areas sometimes also obstruct the eustachian tube, causing pain from a middle ear pressure gradient.
Earache results from otologic causes (involving the middle ear or external ear) or from nonotologic causes referred to the ear from nearby disease processes (see Table 1: Approach to the Patient With Ear Problems: Some Causes of Earache).
With acute pain, the most common causes are
With chronic pain (> 2 to 3 wk), the most common causes are
Also with chronic pain, a tumor must be considered, particularly in elderly patients and if the pain is associated with ear drainage. People with diabetes or in other immunocompromised states may develop a particularly severe form of external otitis termed malignant or necrotizing external otitis. In this situation, if abnormal soft tissue is found on examination of the ear canal, the tissue must be biopsied to rule out cancer.
TMJ dysfunction is a common cause of earache in patients with a normal ear examination.
History of present illness should assess the location, duration, and severity of pain and whether it is constant or intermittent. If intermittent, it is important to determine whether it is random or occurs mainly with swallowing or jaw movement. Important associated symptoms include ear drainage, hearing loss, and sore throat. The patient should be asked about any attempts at cleaning the ear canal (eg, with cotton swab) or other recent instrumentation, foreign bodies, recent air travel or scuba diving, and swimming or other recurrent water exposure to ears.
Review of systems should ask about symptoms of chronic illness, such as weight loss and fevers.
Past medical history should ask about known diabetes or other immunocompromised state, previous ear disorders (particularly infections), and amount and duration of tobacco and alcohol use.
Vital signs should be checked for fever.
Examination focuses on the ears, nose, and throat.
The pinna and area over the mastoid process should be inspected for redness and swelling. The ear canal should be examined for redness, discharge, cerumen or foreign body, and any other lesions. The TM should be examined for redness, perforation, and signs of middle ear fluid collection (eg, bulging, distortion, change in normal light reflex). A brief bedside test of hearing (see Hearing Loss: Evaluation of Hearing Loss) should be conducted.
The throat should be examined for erythema, tonsillar exudate, peritonsillar swelling, and any mucosal lesions suggesting cancer.
TMJ function should be assessed by palpation of the joints on opening and closing of the mouth, and notation should be made of trismus or evidence of bruxism.
The neck should be palpated for lymphadenopathy. In-office fiberoptic examination of the pharynx and larynx should be considered, particularly if no cause for the pain is identified on routine examination and if nonotologic symptoms such as hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, or nasal obstruction are reported.
The following findings are of particular concern:
Interpretation of findings
An important differentiator is whether the ear examination is normal; middle and external ear disorders cause abnormal physical findings, which, when combined with history, usually suggest an etiology (see Table 1: Approach to the Patient With Ear Problems: Some Causes of Earache). For example, those with chronic eustachian tube dysfunction have abnormalities of the TM, typically a retraction pocket.
Those with a normal ear examination may have a visible oropharyngeal cause, such as tonsillitis or peritonsillar abscess. Ear pain due to neuralgia has a classic manifestation as brief (usually seconds, always < 2 min) episodes of extremely severe, sharp pain. Chronic ear pain without abnormality on ear examination might be due to a TMJ disorder, but patients should have a thorough head and neck examination (including fiberoptic examination) to rule out cancer.
Most cases are clear after history and physical examination. Depending on clinical findings, nonotologic causes may require testing (see Table 1: Approach to the Patient With Ear Problems: Some Causes of Earache). Those with a normal ear examination, particularly with chronic or recurrent pain, may warrant evaluation with an MRI to rule out cancer.
Underlying disorders are treated.
Pain is treated with oral analgesics; usually an NSAID or acetaminophen is adequate, but sometimes a brief course of an oral opioid is necessary, particularly for cases of severe otitis externa. In cases of severe otitis externa, effective treatment requires suction of debris from the ear canal and insertion of a wick to allow for delivery of antibiotic ear drops to the infected tissue. Topical analgesics (eg, antipyrine-benzocaine combinations) are generally not very effective but can be used on a limited basis.
Patients should be instructed to avoid digging in their ears with any objects (no matter how soft the objects are or how careful the patient claims to be). Also, patients should not irrigate their ears unless instructed by a physician to do so, and then only gently. An oral irrigator should never be used to irrigate the ear.
Last full review/revision January 2009 by Debara L. Tucci, MD, MS