Pain behind the ear can often be caused by infection, like Swimmer’s ear, dental complications, or swollen lymph nodes behind the ear. Sharp pain behind the ear can also be associated with headaches, jaw pain, or pain located in the back of the neck. Read below for more information on causes and treatment options.
Common symptoms of pain behind the ear

When you think of ear pain, you may imagine it deep within your ear, and that’s often the case. However, the area behind the ear is also vulnerable to pain. Whether the pain is superficial or deep within, it can be bothersome and make activities like chewing difficult. In some cases, pain may impact your ability to hear.
Other symptoms sometimes associated with pain behind the ear

It’s likely to also experience the following.
Swollen glands
Ringing in the ears
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What causes pain behind your ear?

The mastoid is a bony structure directly behind the ear. Nerves, blood vessels, and lymph nodes are more superficially located. Issues in nearby areas like the jaw joint or mouth can also lead to pain. The following details may help you better understand your symptoms and if and when you need to see a physician.
Infectious causes

Causes of pain behind the ear related to infection may include the following.
Swimmer’s ear: Also called an outer ear infection or acute otitis externa, swimmer’s ear usually occurs after getting water in the ear and may cause ear discharge and fever.
Middle ear infection: Also called otitis media, this is an infection that occurs behind the eardrum along with a cold or the flu in many cases.
Mastoiditis: This is a dangerous infection of the bone behind the ear that usually occurs from the spread of an untreated ear infection.
Dental causes

Pain behind the ear can occur due to dental issues, such as the following.
Abscess: A collection of infected material in the mouth, usually from untreated tooth decay, can cause pain that is referred behind the ear.
Impacted teeth: People who do not have their wisdom teeth removed can experience pain if the teeth do not erupt normally. Tooth impaction can also happen to children getting their adult teeth.
Jaw joint dysfunction: The temporomandibular joint (TMJ), located close to the ear, can be strained or misaligned.
Jaw clenching: Some people clench their jaw when they’re nervous, while others do so in their sleep. Clenching leads to stress on the jaw that can be painful.
Teeth grinding: Grinding can also occur overnight and will lead to painful sensations around the jaw.
Other causes

Other various causes of pain behind include the following.
Swollen lymph nodes: Your body stores immune cells in lymph nodes, including some located behind the ear. They can become painful and swollen during an infection, or less commonly, because of an autoimmune disease or cancer.
Cyst: Sometimes a buildup of material can occur under the skin, leaving a bump that may be uncomfortable.
Nerve pain: The nerves that line your skull, including the area behind your ear, can become painfully inflamed in some conditions.
Wax buildup: Excess wax in the ear canal can be uncomfortable, and some people may feel the pain that extends behind the ear.
2 pain behind the ear conditions

This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Temporomandibular joint (tmj) dysfunction disorder

Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction is often caused by a variety of factors, including daily habits, your teeth alignment, and even stress. It usually affects one side of the jaw, but in some people it can affect both sides. People with TMJ dysfunction will typically experience pain on one side of the face that is worse with chewing, yawning, or other movements of the jaw. With some simple changes in your daily habits and other at-home treatments, most people with TMJ dysfunction will experience relief of their symptoms within weeks.
Treatment for temporomandibular joint dysfunction usually includes avoiding eating hard foods or foods that require a lot of chewing. Good posture and relaxation techniques may help relieve tension in the muscles that connect to your temporomandibular joint. In people who clench or grind their teeth, a mouth guard worn at night (and fitted by your dentist) may also help relieve your symptoms. Pain relievers, like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), can also help.
Rarity: Common
Top Symptoms: dizziness, pain, restricted movement, and clicking sounds from jaw, history of headaches, jaw pain, pain in the back of the neck
Symptoms that always occur with temporomandibular joint (tmj) dysfunction disorder: pain, restricted movement, and clicking sounds from jaw
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Lymph node inflammation behind the ear

There are lymph nodes behind the ear. Lymph nodes are where your immune cells live, and when they become enlarged, it could be from a nearby infection, immune response, or even backlog of blood.
Rarity: Common
Top Symptoms: pain behind the ear, swelling behind the ears
Symptoms that always occur with lymph node inflammation behind the ear: swelling behind the ears
Urgency: Primary care doctor
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Treatments and relief for pain behind your ear

Most common causes of pain will resolve within a few days. However, if the pain is severe or persists for some time, see a physician.
At-home treatments

Try the following remedies at home to help relieve ear pain.
Pain medication: Over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or NSAIDs such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) are a good place to start for pain relief.
Warmth: A heating pad or warm compress can soothe pain from in and around the ear.
Relaxation techniques: Tools like meditation and deep breathing can soothe the anxiety that often causes teeth grinding and jaw clenching.
Dry the ear: Whenever water or another liquid enters the ear canal, gently insert a soft towel wrapped around a finger to dry the area and prevent infection.
When to see a doctor

A physician may prescribe the following remedies for pain behind the ear.
Antibiotics: A doctor may prescribe antibiotics if a bacterial infection is likely to blame for your pain.
Imaging: A CT scan or MRI can determine if an infection has spread to the area behind your ear, including the mastoid.
Surgery: In some cases, a surgeon will need to remove an area of infection or a mass that may be causing your pain.
Biopsy: A doctor can take a small sample from your area of pain if there is a mass or swollen lymph node.
Professional ear cleaning: An ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor can use a special scope to inspect and clear the ear canal.
Mouthguard: A dentist can fit you with a protective covering for your teeth that prevents teeth grinding and reduces stress caused by jaw clenching.
Other dental work: If tooth decay or impaction is causing your pain, a dentist can best address the problem.
When it is an emergency

See a physician immediately for the following.
High fever
Sudden onset, severe pain
Hearing loss
Redness or swelling that is spreading
An ear that suddenly sticks out farther than normal
Questions your doctor may ask about pain behind the ear

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:
Has your dentist or significant other ever told you that you grind your teeth in your sleep?
Are you experiencing a headache?
Do you hear a ringing or whistling sound no one else hears?
About your ear, do you feel a warm or fluid sensation in your ear?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.