What Causes Headache Behind The Ear? Common Causes And When To See a Doctor


Headaches affecting the area behind and around the ear can arise from various causes. Determining the source of these unpleasant headaches empowers sufferers to find relief through proper treatment.

This article explores the anatomy involved, common culprits like TMJ and neck issues, and serious causes like infections and vascular disorders. Red flags requiring medical care are also covered.

Defining Headache Behind The Ear

Headaches behind, inside, or around the ear represent a distinct subset of head pain issues. Also termed retroauricular headaches, the location differentiates them from general headaches like migraines. Localizing the pain is key to deducing the origin.

Headache Behind The Ear

These headaches may feel like throbbing, stabbing, or pressure behind or deep inside the ear. Pain can radiate to the ear from trigeminal nerves or referral from the neck. Ear-area headaches range from benign to indicating serious medical disorders.

Importance Of Understanding The Causes

Identifying what’s causing troubling ear-associated headaches is crucial for proper treatment. With many possibilities, from TMJ to tumors, thorough diagnosis should precede treatment. Understanding common causes, and red flags allows sufferers to advocate for their health.

Common Causes Of Headache Behind The Ear

➜ Muscular Tension and Neck Strain

Overuse and tightness in upper neck muscles often radiate into headaches behind the ears. Trigger points in the sternocleidomastoid and suboccipital muscles cause localized pain. Poor posture aggravates muscular tension.

➜ Occipital Neuralgia

Irritation or injury to the occipital nerves at the base of the skull is a common cause of head pain behind the ears. Compression of the nerves can arise from tight muscles, osteoarthritis, or anatomical anomalies.

➜ Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorder

The temporomandibular joints hinge the jaw and are located just in front of the ears. TMJ dysfunction from bruxism, injury, or malocclusion can refer to pain behind the ears. Chewing and yawning worsen the ache.

➜ Cervicogenic Headaches

Issues like degenerative discs or vertebrae in the upper cervical spine frequently cause head pain. Neck problems lead to pain felt behind the ears due to nerve pathways. Head movement tends to aggravate cervicogenic headaches.

Headaches affecting the area behind or around the ear have various potential causes that require thorough evaluation.

Medical Conditions And Systemic Causes

➜ Sinus Infections and Headaches

Sinus congestion and inflammation from sinusitis or rhinitis commonly precipitate deep facial pain including behind the ears. Post-nasal drip and pressure exacerbate the headaches.

Ear pain or sensation of fullness in the ears can sometimes occur before migraines. Altered perception of sounds may also accompany migraine headaches due to their neurological nature.

➜ Neural Conditions and Nerve Compression

Impingement of cranial nerves in the head and neck by structures like tumors or blood vessels can trigger secondary headaches behind the ears. Neuralgias of the glossopharyngeal or vagus nerves may also contribute.

➜ Dental Issues and Ear-Associated Headaches

Dental problems like impacted wisdom teeth, infections, and temporomandibular joint disorders cause head and facial pain, including behind the ears. Jaw pain often extends into the ear.

Inflammatory And Infectious Causes

➜ Otitis Media and Ear Infections

Otitis media is an infection of the middle ear structures that produce severe throbbing earaches. The pressure and swelling can radiate into an adjacent headache. Drainage provides relief.

➜ Mastoiditis

Infection and inflammation of the bony mastoid area behind the ear require prompt antibiotic treatment. Mastoiditis causes deep radiating ear and head pain with redness and heat behind the ear.

Treatment And Management

▪️ Pain Relief Strategies

OTC or prescription analgesics provide temporary headache relief while determining the cause. Cold compresses, massages, and stretches may also ease the pain. Trigger point injections can disable pain knots.

▪️ Medications for Various Causes

Medications prescribed depend on the diagnosis. Anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants, indomethacin, antidepressants, and calcitonin help certain headaches. Antibiotics treat infectious sources.

▪️ Physical Therapy and Exercises

Gentle neck stretches, posture training, TMJ, and trigger point exercises performed under PT guidance are effective for tension and cervical headaches. Good ergonomics prevent a recurrence.

▪️ Lifestyle Modifications

Stress reduction techniques, dietary changes to avoid triggers, limiting alcohol, smoking cessation, and optimizing sleep all help minimize headaches without medication. Biofeedback allows control of muscle tension.

Recurring or worsening headaches behind the ear should prompt medical consultation to identify the origin and appropriate treatment.

Prevention And Self-care

▪️ Tips for Preventing Headaches Behind the Ear

  • Use good posture and ergonomics at work and home to avoid neck strain.
  • Stretch tight neck muscles like the sternocleidomastoid and upper traps.
  • Address teeth grinding or jaw clenching if present.
  • Learn cervical mobility exercises and self-massage techniques.
  • Limit alcohol and hydrate well to prevent headaches.
  • Reduce emotional and physical stress through relaxation methods.

▪️ Stress Management Techniques

Yoga, deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, and walks outdoors help counter headache triggers like anxiety and tension. Maintain balance between work, recreation and rest.

▪️ Maintaining Good Posture and Ergonomics

Setting up workstations properly to avoid neck strain and arranging pillows to keep the head aligned on the spine while sleeping helps prevent headaches caused by poor ergonomics. Regular stretch breaks relieve postural stress.

When To Seek Medical Help?

Seek prompt medical care for:

  • Severe unilateral ear and head pain
  • Headache awakening from sleep
  • Fevers, nausea, vision issues
  • Weakness or loss of coordination
  • Headaches following any injury

For recurring headaches behind the ear, consult primary care doctors or neurologists. ENT doctors evaluate ear disorders. Physical therapists address cervicogenic causes. Most cases can be successfully managed by determining the source.


Headaches affecting the head region near the ear stem from various sources. Muscular dysfunction, neuralgias, TMJ disorders, cervical arthritis, infections, and vascular issues account for the majority. Less common causes range from neoplasms to aneurysms.


1. What is the most common cause of headache behind the ear?

Muscular tension and neck issues like cervical spondylosis are the most common causes of headache behind or around the ear. Poor posture often contributes.

2. Can sinus infections cause ear and head pain?

Yes, sinusitis is a well-known cause of deep facial pain including headaches around the ear region. Drainage and facial pressure generate the ache.

3. When should you see a doctor for headache behind the ear?

Seek medical care if the headaches are severe or persistent, accompanied by neurological symptoms, or present after any trauma. Evaluation is needed to determine the cause and appropriate treatment.

4. Can anxiety and stress contribute to ear and head pain?

Yes, tension headaches related to anxiety, depression, and high stress levels can certainly cause headaches affecting the area around the ears. Stress management helps.

5. Does TMJ cause pain behind the ear?

TMJ dysfunction can refer pain to the ear region due to the temporomandibular joint’s proximity to the ears. Jaw issues like bruxism are a common ear headache culprit.

Dr. Jun Ren is a dedicated and experienced registered dietitian and nutritionist who is committed to helping people achieve their health goals through personalized nutrition plans. With a passion for promoting healthy eating habits and preventing chronic diseases, Dr. Ren has been able to assist numerous clients in improving their overall quality of life.

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