What is Otalgia?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 21 September 2016
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Otalgia is better known to most people as earache. This is a broad term meaning any kind of earache due to almost any cause, and it’s usually classified into two groups depending on types of causes. If a person has primary otalgia, they have aching directly caused by some part of the interior or exterior ear. Other people get a more complicated condition called referred otalgia, and in these cases they may have ear pain with no apparent dysfunction of the ear. The earache is referred or is caused by some other part of the body.

One common cause of primary otalgia is infections of the middle ear or otitis media. This is fluid build-up that results in pressure on the eardrum. Most common in younger children, it can still occur in adults and be very uncomfortable.

Infections outside the ear, like swimmer’s ear result in earache, too. Any trauma to the ear, or things like a burst eardrum may result in serious ear pain. Sometimes growths in the ear, such as tumors or abnormal bone growth can produce significant ear discomfort.


Catching the culprit causing referred otalgia is not always as easy, though sometimes the source is fairly obvious. People with lots of congestion from conditions like sinus infections occasionally have an earache, even when their ears appear to be healthy and without infection. Another of the more obvious indicators of referred or secondary otalgia is any illness or trauma that has resulted in sore throat. Removal of tonsils might create earache for a few days, and illnesses such as mononucleosis, due to significant sore throat, can make the ears hurt.

For the medical layperson trying to decide if otalgia is secondary or primary, it’s a good idea not to guess. Especially when someone has evidence of other illness like nasal congestion or sore throat, it makes sense to see a doctor to rule out primary causes. Many ear infections of inner and outer ear are present with other symptoms like sore throat or stuffy nose, and it’s not always possible to tell if an ear infection is present.

What can be very confusing is if a person is not sick and has developed what appears to be referred otalgia. There are some things doctors might investigate as potential causes. Sometimes ear pain comes from tooth or jaw pain. Those who have dental problems or conditions like temporomandibular joint disorders could be at risk for earaches.

Occasionally nerves in the neck are compressed. They become inflamed and this is felt in the ears. Any part of the body that has nerves in it that feed ear sensation could be examined as potentially creating earache.

Usually, cause of earache is straightforward, but if pain is chronic and not from an obvious source, doctors may need to spend some time figuring out pain source. It’s difficult to say exactly what treatment will be undertaken or recommended for referred earache. This can be highly individualized.


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