I had the worst ear "infection" of my life last year.
It went on for an aggravating 8 months.
Multiple courses of antibiotics, anti-fungal powder, garlic oil, no swimming at all (in Summer).
I saw multiple doctors and an ear, nose and throat specialist.
Even the doctors (including the specialist) were convinced it was an infection.
After giving me several rounds of different ear antibiotics and steroids, I was then told that the pain was because the medicine stopped my wax production.
None of this was true.
I simply had TMJ disorder.
How my TMJ ear pain started
We went on a vacation to visit family last year.
Even though it was supposed to be a vacation and relaxing, it turned out to be a very high-stress period (family issues!).
The day that my ear started hurting was actually while we were swimming.
This is what led me to believe that it was an infection to start with - I assumed the water was dirty.
So I went to the doctor and told him I'd just been swimming.
He prescribed antiobiotic drops.
And 8 months of back and forth nonsense started from there.
By the 8 month mark, my ear was still as painful as it was the day my supposed "infection" started.
I learned that my jaw and surrounding muscles were giving me an earache
For that entire period, I was under intense family stress.
The vacation was the worst but it progressed for most of the year.
I began to realize that the tension caused by my stress was actually causing my SCM (sternocleidomastoid muscle) to contract and tense up, and the temporalis muscle around my ear was tender to touch.
Initially I just thought it was radiating pain from an infection.
It was the muscle tension that was radiating pain to my ear.
I decided to go and see a TMJ specialist who confirmed for me that tension was causing my TMJ to flare up which was putting pressure on my ear.
He gave me Flexeril (a temporary solution to relax the muscles) which did wonders but could only be used for a week or so.
Things that helped get my ear pain under control and relax my TMJ
The first is the most obvious: relax.
I had to step away from work and do things that would minimize stress. I even cut contact with various family members who caused me a lot of anxiety (and hence TMJ).
A friend convinced me to purchase a bottle of magnesium oil too.
I'd massage this oil into my TMJ joint and surrounding muscles (SCM and temporalis) which acts as a natural muscle relaxant.
The type of oil that I've found really effective is PURE Magnesium (but I'm sure that any 100% brand would work).
Along with all this, I'd go for regular massages and just focus on calming myself.
When I can't go out for a massage, I use a Shiatsu massager at home (basically a pad with rotating warm balls that loosen up the neck muscles).
I put at my neck level and let it release the tension at the base of my skull.
It's the next best thing to a masseuse (the brand I use is Zyllion Shiatsu massager but there are other good ones).
Pay careful attention to how you sleep
This is another thing I've had to learn to manage properly.
Most TMJ issues happen while we're asleep.
It's one thing to minimize stress throughout the day but when we're asleep, our mind still races and we clench without realizing it.
Then you wake up with ear pain and other problems, and it may not be obvious that your TMJ is at fault.
- Get a proper mouth guard from your dentist or TMJ specialist (it'll protect your teeth but also minimize the clenching).
- Invest in high quality bedding.
This means getting a really good pillow (I use a fantastic cervical pillow but it takes a LOT of getting used to) and putting effort into your sleep comfort.
Make sure that whatever you do before you go to sleep, it's relaxing.
No non-fiction books. No politics. No stressful news or conversations that raise your anxiety.
Just something totally calming.
You want your brain to 'switch off' as much as possible before you hit your pillow.
Don't always assume that doctors know everything about ear pain and TMJ
Obviously you should always talk to your doctor about issues like this.
But from my experience, I can say with certainty that multiple doctors and an ear specialist completely failed to accurately diagnose my issue.
Nobody even considered my TMJ as the culprit for my ear pain.
If you can afford it, I'd highly recommend talking to a TMJ specialist or physio if you're having ear pain with no clear answer.
I just wish I could get the 8 months of my life back that I feel like I lost.