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Earache and headache: Causes and treatments

Last update on Oct, 31, 2023

Many parts of the head and facial anatomy are interconnected, especially the ears, nose and throat (there’s a reason why doctors specialize in all three!). Because all of these parts work together, if you’re experiencing illness or pain in one, it could easily lead to issues elsewhere. So it’s understandable that, sometimes, earaches and headaches go hand in hand. Let’s  look at the causes, symptoms and solutions for simultaneous earaches and headaches.

What causes earache and headache at the same time?

From chronic illnesses to occasional ear infections and sore throats, many conditions have symptoms that include both earaches and headaches

The congestion and pressure that comes with an ear infection almost certainly can lead to ear pain. Infections inflame the tubes in the middle ear, causing blockage and mucus buildup. Ear infections can cause headaches, fever and other symptoms, including fluid drainage from the ears and difficulty hearing. If you’re wondering whether ear infections are contagious, the answer is no, but the viruses that cause them (e.g., colds) are. 

Ear infection headache treatment depends on the severity of the condition. Mild ear infections can resolve themselves with time, and treatment is often a matter of managing the pain and symptoms until the infection heals. But people (especially children) with chronic or severe ear infections might require antibiotics or surgery to prevent worsening illness, future ear infections or hearing damage.

Neuralgia is pain caused by damaged or irritated nerves. Because the body is full of nerves, the location where the neuralgia occurs has a more specific name, such as occipital neuralgia, which is irritation of the occipital nerves in the scalp. The nerves become inflamed, irritated and swollen, resulting in occipital neuralgia symptoms like stinging, throbbing or burning in the area where the occipital nerves are concentrated: behind your eyes and ears, at the back of your head and the upper neck.

Occipital neuralgia is a common side effect of stress put on a nerve. That can often stem from muscle tightness, which can be treated using heat, massage or physical therapy. Occipital neuralgia treatment might also include injections such as nerve blocks or Botox can also decrease inflammation and pain.

Medication options include anticonvulsants, muscle relaxants or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), depending on your specific symptoms. If your healthcare provider recommends surgery, they may suggest occipital nerve or spinal cord stimulation.

As mentioned, occipital neuralgia can be treated using physical and massage therapy. To manage your pain, try occipital neuralgia exercises such as these:

  • Place your back flat against a wall, feet spread shoulder-width apart.
  • Gradually lower your chin to your chest.
  • Then, pull your head back so that it touches the wall.
  • Hold this position between five and 10 seconds.

If this exercise makes the pain in your neck worse, discontinue doing it and contact a healthcare provider.

Tinnitus, a sensation of ringing in the ears without external cause or stimulus, often stems from an underlying condition such as hearing loss, ear infection, injuries or chronic illnesses and diseases. Sometimes, ototoxic medications, including NSAIDs, antibiotics, or antidepressants, can cause tinnitus.

While there are plenty of myths about tinnitus, the idea that tinnitus can cause headaches is not one of them. Tinnitus can cause headaches and vice versa. Tinnitus is linked to multiple headache disorders, including migraines. According to the American Migraine Foundation, tinnitus can worsen during migraine attacks. The causes are still being researched.

Using hearing aids can help manage tinnitus symptoms, especially if caused by hearing loss. However, since tinnitus is frequently a sign of an underlying condition, it’s necessary to find out the root cause to determine the most effective tinnitus treatment.

If no cause can be pinpointed, a doctor can build a plan for managing your tinnitus. Since there’s no cure for it, white noise machines and masking devices will help mask the ringing in your ears.

Temporomandibular joint disorders, commonly referred to as TMJ disorder, cause dysfunction in the jaw joints, muscles, nerves and ligaments. This dysfunction can stem from the usual wear and tear or issues such as jaw injury, arthritis or teeth grinding. People with TMJ disorder symptoms frequently experience jaw popping, facial and jaw pain, difficulty opening or closing their mouth, headaches (including migraines), tinnitus and earaches.

There are both surgical and nonsurgical options for TMJ disorder treatment. Over-the-counter medications or prescriptions can help manage associated pain like headache and earache. Pain relievers (acetaminophen), NSAIDs (ibuprofen and naproxen), muscle relaxers or even antidepressants could also address pain. Talk to your doctor about the risks that come with each medication option, especially if you have hearing loss.

Mouthguards, physical therapy, ultrasound therapy and trigger point injections (dry needling or injecting substances into the pain points in your jaw muscle) are also nonsurgical options. Even behavioral changes—like fixing your posture or not chewing on ice—could change your TMJ dysfunction for the better.

For more serious cases, you need to speak with a doctor about surgical options such as arthrocentesis, TMJ arthroscopy or open-joint surgery. They will put together a treatment plan based on your needs and the cause of your TMJ dysfunction.

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What types of headaches cause ear pain on one side?

One-sided ear pain can be caused by a variety of headaches, including:

A migraine is a severe, painful headache often paired with throbbing, nausea, vomiting, and light and sound sensitivity. When a migraine begins, people can experience vision loss, tingling or numb body parts and visual phenomena such as light flashes. These headaches last hours or days and usually only occur on one side of the head.

The head pressure associated with migraines may cause ear pain, too. People with migraines often describe a feeling of fullness in the ear—along with tinnitus and sound sensitivity—due to the pressure. 

Like the pain associated with a sinus infection, sinus headaches are characterized by pressure near the eyes, cheeks and forehead. Sinus headaches and migraines share a similar throbbing pain and other various symptoms, such as nasal congestion, so they often get mixed up. However, sinus headache symptoms don’t include the light sensitivity or nausea that is common with migraines.

Because the ears and sinuses work closely together in the body, sinusitis and pressure in the sinuses can cause ear pain.

Tension headaches are the most common kind of headache. Ranging from mild to moderate, the pain is usually dull and achy with tightness or pressure in the forehead, back of the head and even around the ears. However, tension headaches can be either episodic—lasting anywhere between 30 minutes to a week—or chronic.

“Chronic” refers to headaches that have consistently lasted longer than an hour and occurred on 15 or more days per month for at least three months. They can be considered migraines, tension headaches (both of which might cause ear pain) or hemicrania continua, a headache disorder that leads to consistent pain in one side of the head. Note that “chronic” refers to conditions that last a year or more, while “severe” head and ear pain refers to the degree of pain or discomfort.

An extremely painful type of headache, cluster headaches happen in recurring attacks. The headaches themselves last anywhere from weeks to months but occur sporadically. A person might not experience any headaches for months or years, but cluster headaches can come back and stay for an unpredictable period of time. The pain is concentrated on one side of the head, in or around the eye. Cluster headaches can even occur around the ear, resulting in ear pain.

Cervicogenic headaches differ from others because of their cause. They’re spurred by neck pain correlated to neck injuries, such as fractures or pinched nerves; arthritis can also be a cause. However, something as simple as bad posture or uncomfortable furniture can strain your body and neck and trigger a cervicogenic headache. You’ll feel the pain on only one side of the head, and it can reach around the forehead, temple, eyes and ears.  The pain can be resolved with light physical therapy or a massage.

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What causes ear pain and headache on the right side of your head?

Any of the above-mentioned causes, from migraines to infections, might cause headache and ear pain on the right side of your head. However, none of them will predictably cause one-sided pain across all people. 

Causes of earache and headache on the left side of your head

There is no exact way to identify why you might only experience ear pain and headache on the left side of your head. The side of your head where these pains show up is entirely individual and might even switch. If you have concerns about consistent headache and earache on one side, record your symptoms and talk to a doctor about them. 

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Earache and headache treatments and home remedies

Treatment for your simultaneous earache and headache will require you to find out exactly what caused both of them to appear. Then, you can resolve the issue at its source, knocking out the associated symptoms. To manage symptoms while pursuing treatment, try these medications and earache and headache home remedies.

For headaches:

  • Try massaging your head to release tension or going to a professional masseuse to do it for you.
  • Hold warm or cool compresses against your forehead; limit use of cool compresses to less than 10 minutes.
  • Stay hydrated throughout the day, as dehydration triggers headaches.
  • Reduce your caffeine intake, as it can make headaches worse.
  • Take over-the-counter pain medications, such as aspirin, ibuprofen or acetaminophen, according to package directions.

For earaches:

  • Place a cold or hot compress against the irritated ear. Again, limit cold compress use to no more than 10 minutes.
  • Use ear drops, following the directions on the label or as prescribed by a doctor.
  • Take an appropriate dosage of over-the-counter pain medications, such as aspirin, ibuprofen or acetaminophen. 

When to see a doctor

When you’re dealing with headaches accompanied by ear pain, knowing when to see a doctor can be difficult. While headaches can be a common, passing irritation, they can also be an early sign of worse or impending health conditions. Earaches and pain can also lead to long-term hearing loss and permanent damage if spurred by infection and left untreated.

When you have a headache or ear pain—or both—pay attention to the severity and any differences you feel from normal headaches you experience. Anything extremely painful or otherwise out of the ordinary is a good reason to talk to your doctor.

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