Ever felt a sharp stinging pain in and around your ears? Do you know it could be a sign of an underlying ailment? In fact, if the pain is accompanied by fever, it could be a serious ear infection. You should act quickly in order to nip the infection in the bud. You may have to undergo several tests depending on the severity of the pain and how long you have had it. This is the only way to determine the underlying cause.

It is also important to watch out for the accompanying symptoms that may be a sign of a serious infection. It is, therefore, important to get immediate medical attention. This will prevent the infection from spreading to other parts of the body. The fact that the ears are so close to the brain makes the sharp pain behind ear very dangerous.

Causes of Sharp Pain Behind Ear


Otitis Media

Otitis media is an ear infection that is caused by bacteria or a virus. It normally affects the middle ear which is the air-filled space located behind the eardrum. The eardrum contains the small vibrating bones of the ear. Otitis media can cause sharp pain behind ear and is more common in kids than adults. The frequent pain is usually caused by inflammation and the accumulation of fluids in the middle ear.


Otitis media usually clears up on its own. Therefore, treatment should focus on managing the pain and monitoring to ensure the infection is not getting worse. If your case is severe, you will need to take antibiotics. If left untreated, an ear infection can lead to hearing complications and other serious conditions.



Mastoiditis is a bacterial infection that affects the mastoid bone which is located behind the ear. It is made up of air spaces that help drain the middle ear. This condition is caused by an infection of the middle ear. Bacteria travel from the middle ear into the air cells of the mastoid bone. It could also be as a result of a skin cyst in the middle of the ear blocking drainage of the ear. The symptoms accompanying with sharp pain behind ear include:

  • Irritability, lethargy and fever

  • Tenderness and redness behind the ear

  • Swollen ear lobe

  • Drainage from the ear

  • Drooping and bulging of the ear


Treatment involves the use of antibiotics, frequent ear cleaning by a doctor and eardrops. If treatment is unsuccessful, you might need to undergo a surgical procedure. If your child develops acute mastoiditis, they may have to be put up in the hospital for specialized treatment by an otolaryngologist.


Swimmer’s Ear

Swimmer's ear affects the outer ear canal which connects the eardrum to the outside of the head. As the name suggests, it is normally caused by the water that remains in the ears after taking a swim. The moist environment is breeding ground for bacteria. You can also get swimmer’s ear when you put cotton swabs, fingers and other objects in your ears as you can damage the thin layer of skin that lines your ear canal.


Swimmer’s ear is normally treated with eardrops. Your doctor may also recommend some OTC pain relievers to ease your discomfort, such as naproxen (Aleve, others), ibuprofen (Advil, others), or acetaminophen (Tylenol, others). It is important to start treatment immediately to prevent aggravation. 


Temporomandibular Joint Disorders

Temporomandibular joint disorders are another cause of sharp pain behind the ear. The temporomandibular joint is the joint located at the jaw which connects the temporal bone to the lower jawbone. These disorders are caused by jaw injury, whiplash injury or bruise.


In some cases, the symptoms of this condition may disappear without treatment. But if your symptoms persist, your doctor may recommend some medications such as pain relievers, tricyclic antidepressants or muscle relaxants and therapies or surgery to repair or replace the joint.



The excessive buildup of earwax in the ear canal is referred to as ceruminosis. It can cause shooting pain behind ear, itching in the ear and muffled hearing. As you can imagine, it is caused by the excessive production of ear wax in your ears by the glands. Wax can also accumulate in the ear causing ceruminosis if the ear canal is too narrow. There are also some cases where you might cause the condition by pushing ear wax deeper into the ear when using ear buds.


The treatment is mainly the removal of ear wax. wax softening agent and special instruments such as cerumen spoon, suction device or forceps can be used to remove the ear wax. The removal should be done only by a doctor or a health care provider.


Blocked Eustachian Tube

The shooting pain behind ear in neck could be as a result of a blocked Eustachian tube. The Eustachian tube can block due to flu, a cold, allergies, sinus infection or changes in pressure when flying or climbing a mountain. Sudden changes in altitude can cause ear barotrauma which has the same effect as a blocked Eustachian tube.


This condition often gets better on its own.  A simple exercise can help to open the blocked tubes: close your mouth and hold your nose with hands, then gently blow your nose. Chewing gum and yawning also help. 


Swollen Lymph Nodes

Swollen lymph nodes can also cause sharp pain behind ear. Lymph nodes are bean-shaped glands that are located behind the ears, under the armpits and in the groin area. Lymph nodes normally swell when you have some sort of infection, inflammation, viruses and cancer. 


Treatment depends on the cause of the swollen lymph nodes. Common infections are odten treated with antibiotics.


Oral Problem

There are some times when a tooth abscess or an infected tooth can cause shooting pain behind ear and in neck. An infected tooth normally causes the lymphatic glands to swell and as a result cause pain behind the ears. You will have to see a dentist to resolve a tooth infection or abscess. Leaving an oral problem untreated can lead to further complications and untold pain, so have it checked out as soon as possible.


Your doctor will prescribe antibiotics and OTC pain relievers to fight the infection and relieve the pain. Warm salt-water rinses also help ease the symptoms. Maintaining good dental care habits is also important to get rid of oral problem.


Other Causes

Besides the above conditions, other causes leading to sharp pain behind ear may include:

  • Barotraumas

  • Arthritis of the jaw

  • Sinus infections

When to See a Doctor

You should see a doctor if you have persistent sharp pain behind ear. You should make sure to follow through with treatment as suggested by your doctor. Avoid self-treatment as you could aggravate the condition in the process and also damage your ear permanently.


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