The ears are truly remarkable, and, as one of the five primary sense organs, they help bridge a connection to the surrounding world. Though animals have ears that range in size, from the enormous ears of an elephant to the tiny ears of a mouse, they essentially serve the same function. Most people don’t think of the ear unless something goes wrong. When this happens, it can be very painful and irritating, resulting in problems such as pain, pressure, fullness, or ringing in the ears. These symptoms can range from minor to severe, and may even prompt patients to seek care from an ENT specialist, who is a physician specializing in the ear, nose, and throat area.
It is interesting to note that these exact same ear symptoms could also have an association with TMJ pathology. The relationship between the jaw and ear is often times overlooked, and it surprises people to learn that the two are in fact quite closely related. For example, any underlying problems with the bite or the muscles that control the jaw can affect the ear greatly.
What distinguishes ear problems that have a dental cause? Most dental associated ear pain is usually only felt in one ear, and feels very deep. The pain has also been known to travel down the neck, the temple area, or even the back of the head, and is usually instigated by any jaw movement. It has even been shown that pain from dental infections, especially in the mandible (lower jaw), can radiate to the ears. There are various ear pain symptoms related to TMJ, showing that there is indeed a relationship between the two.
The following are examples of some ear symptoms that may indicate that the underlying problem is actually with the TMJ:
- Pain in ears
- Ear pressure and a feeling of fullness
- Ringing in ears
- Jaw shifts to the right or left when opening wide
- Dizziness/Balance Issues
- Sore and tender muscles around the jaw joints
- Clicking, popping, or grating noises in jaw joints
THE EAR AND JAW BONE ARE RELATIVES!
The relation between the ear and jaw is truly fascinating, especially because these two anatomical structures actually start out as one in the developing embryo. As the embryo continues to grow, they eventually separate out from each other and form individual entities. To get a better idea of the connection between the ear and jaw, it is important to look at some basic anatomy: The ear contains the smallest bones in the entire body, which are all uniquely named for their shape: hammer (malleus), anvil (incus), and stirrup (stapes). The movement of the hammer is controlled by the muscle tensor tympani. This muscle controls the vibrations of the eardrum and protects the inner ear from loud sounds. Another important muscle of the ear is the tensor palatini, which controls the eustachian tube opening and closing. Because the ears and jaw are so closely related in embryonic development, the same nerve that controls the tensor tympani and tensor palatini also controls the muscles that allow chewing. Since the muscles of the jaw and ear share the same nerve supply, a problem in one can affect the other. In addition to this nerve, another thing that the ear and jaw have in common is location. The jaw (mandible) is attached to the skull by two joints right in front of the ear (TMJ). The part of the skull that separates the jaw joints from the ear canals is thin. This means that any TMJ problem could reflect as a symptom in the ears.
How a Bad Bite Might Affect the Ears
An abnormal bite (occlusion) could potentially contribute to muscle and joint problems of the TMJ. The teeth usually come together every time upon swallowing, which is about 2,500 times each day and night. When there is an abnormal bite, the chewing muscles tire out, shorten, and stiffen at some point. Over time, if untreated, the muscle could possibly go into a spasm and cause the jaw joints to be pulled out of alignment. If any of these symptoms occur, it is highly advised to see a specially trained dentist who is qualified to diagnose and treat TMJ disorders.