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Managing Ear Pain

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Updated July 07, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

The various causes of ear pain are almost too numerous to count. This article will take a look at the most common causes and explore methods for managing pain related to individual conditions. If you are not sure what is causing your ear pain, you may want to try our symptom checker.

Ear Pain Related to Otitis Media (Middle Ear Infections)

Otitis media is an infection of the middle ear. It is most commonly seen in children (often in infants and toddlers) but can occur in adults as well. Signs of this infection include pain that increases at night.

The most crucial step you can take in managing pain related to otitis media is by getting a proper diagnosis from your doctor, and then, if necessary, using prescribed antibiotics. In the meantime, over-the-counter ibuprofen and acetominophen is usually effective. It also helps to prop your child into a more upright position to sleep at night, as this decreases pressure in the ears and, subsequently, pain.

Another treatment option for pain control is analgesic ear drops. These ear drops contain a local anesthetic, similar to lidocaine or bupivicaine, which can be inserted directly into the ear. For more information about otitis media, read:

Ear Pain from a Ruptured Ear Drum

A ruptured ear drum is a common cause of ear pain. The ear drum separates the middle ear from the outer ear. A ruptured ear drum can occur either by an acoustic injury, such as very loud sustained noise; a direct injury, such as damage from a cotton swab or other object being inserted in the ear; or barotrauma (caused by flying on an airplane or scuba diving).

If the perforation is caused by pressure building behind the eardrum, you may have a sudden decrease in pain at the time of rupture. Subsequent pain is usually related to medical repair of the ear drum (tympanoplasty), which can be done in the physician's office or in surgery if the tear is large. In this case, oral pain medications ranging from over-the-counter analgesics, like ibuprofen and acetaminophen, to prescription opioids, such as Lortab or Percocet, will likely be used. For more information, read:

Ear Pain Related to Swimmer's Ear (Otitis Externa)

Swimmer's ear is an infection of the outer ear, which can be quite painful. Some signs of this condition include pain, redness, itchiness and scaly flaking skin. This condition usually requires medical intervention. When managing ear pain related to swimmer's ear, it may be helpful to use a heating pad over the affected ear. Again, ibuprofen and acetominophen are helpful in managing pain caused by swimmer's ear. For more information, read:

Ear Pain Related to Perichondritis

Perichondritis is a painful condition in which the tissue surrounding the cartilage of the outer ear becomes infected. Perichondritis is usually caused by some sort of trauma to the outer ear from an accident or from ear piercing. Perichondritis can also be caused by ear surgery. In its early stages, ear pain can be managed using over-the-counter pain medications. If the infection has progressed far enough to require surgery, prescription medications, such as Lortab or Percocet, may be necessary. Keep your upper body elevated and use an ice pack to reduce pain and swelling. For more information, read:

Surgical Ear Pain or Ear Pain Caused by Injury

Many options are available for controlling ear pain after surgery or in the case of an injury. Your doctor will ultimately decide what treatment should be used, but you should be aware of your physician's options, which include:

  • Heat and ice: Advantages include pain control and a reduction in inflammation and swelling. The risks of using heat or ice are small, but include tissue damage.

  • NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories), such as ibuprofen and naproxen: Advantages of these medications are that they usually do not cause nausea, vomiting or drowsiness. Drawbacks of using these medications include the risk of internal bleeding, especially in the elderly or those who have stomach problems.

  • Ultram (tramadol): This medication is a non-opioid pain reliever that can be used to treat moderate to severe pain. The advantages of this medication are a decreased risk of nausea, vomiting, drowsiness or dizziness. Tramadol can be a good alternative for patients with an aversion to narcotic pain medication. The way this drug works is not clearly understood, though it appears to affect the neurotransmitter norepinephrine.

  • Narcotic pain medications, such as Lortab and Percocet: Benefits of these drugs are that they are effective in controlling pain and relatively safe when used properly. Contrary to popular belief, the risk of addiction (when these medications are legitimately used for pain control) is low. Drawbacks include nausea and vomiting, constipation, dizziness and drowsiness and the risk of a decreased breathing rate.

It should be noted that some surgeries, including the removal of tonsils and adenoids, can cause ear pain even though the ear is not operated on directly. For more information on specific surgeries that can cause ear pain, read:

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  5. Managing Ear Pain (And Conditions That Cause It)

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