Sudden stabbing pain in ear: Causes Treatment and Prevention?

Sudden stabbing pain in ear
Medically reviewed by Richard Honaker M.D.

Overview

The ear is a sensitive organ, and any discomfort in it can be distressing. Ear pain, also known as otalgia, is a condition in which stabbing pain is experienced in the inner or outer ear. Sudden pain in the ear can be caused by medical conditions such as infections, allergies, or nerve damage. Treatment can vary depending on the underlying cause. Prescription medications are primarily used to relieve ear pain, and in some cases, physical therapy and home remedies help manage the symptoms as well. If ear pain is left untreated for a long time, it can lead to eardrum rupturing and complete loss of hearing. This is why proper diagnosis and timely treatment are essential. This blog explores the causes and how you can treat and prevent sudden sharp pain in the ears. 

Why do I have a sharp pain in my ear?

Various medical conditions, infections, or changes in air pressure can cause sudden stabbing pain in the ear. The pain can result from one or a combination of these factors. Here are possible causes of sharp pain in the ears.

1 in 3 people with an ear infection experience pain strong enough to affect their everyday lives.

Otitis

Otitis is an inner or outer ear infection and the most common cause of ear pain. It occurs when the space between the eardrum and inner ear becomes infected. Viral and bacterial infections, objects such as Q-tips, and water are various causes of inflammation in the ear.

Research done in 2016 found that viral inner ear infections from colds and flu are common among children. The eustachian tube, which regulates the air pressure in the ear, is usually affected. In adults, outer ear infections are common, mainly of the ear canal (swimmer’s ear). 

Ear infections are accompanied by other symptoms.

  • Vertigo
  • Blisters on the outer ear
  • Discharge from the ear
  • Difficulty hearing
  • Feeling pressure in the ear 
  • Low energy 

Sinus infections

Sinus infections, such as sinusitis, can cause sharp ear pain. This can happen because sinuses and ears are interconnected by a narrow tube called the eustachian tube. Inflamed sinuses can block the eustachian tube, causing throbbing pain in the ear. 

Allergies

Nasal allergies, such as pollen, can inflame the eustachian tube. This causes abnormal ear pressure, itching, and sudden sharp ear pain. It can also lead to fluid buildup and other ear infections.

Stuck foreign objects in the ear

Foreign objects can get stuck in the ear and cause sharp pain. Things such as insects, debris, small toys, and objects, or excessive ear wax can harm the ear structure. Removing the object harshly can damage the ear canal. It is best to let a healthcare professional with specialized tools remove them safely. A foreign object can cause symptoms other than sharp ear pain.

  • Hearing loss
  • Infection
  • Drainage or discharge from the ear

Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ)

TMJ is a musculoskeletal condition that affects the jaw joints. It causes stabbing pain in the ears, especially when chewing. According to a study in 2024, women aged between 20-40 years of age are more likely to experience TMJ. It is not usually serious and can heal on its own. Other symptoms of TMD include

  • Earache 
  • Jaw locking when opening the mouth
  • Pain in the jaws

Meniere’s Disease

Meniere’s disease is an ear disorder that affects hearing and balance. Its exact cause is unknown, but fluid buildup in the inner ear can cause it. Symptoms of Meniere’s disease include

  • Hearing loss
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Pressure in the ear
  • A feeling of fullness in the ear
  • Dizzy spells

Dental problems

Major dental problems are a common cause of sharp pain in the ears. Tooth decay, cavities, swelling in the cheeks, or enlarged lymph nodes can cause this pain. The symptoms can worsen if these conditions are left untreated for a long time. 

Tinnitus

Buzzing or ringing in the ears is called tinnitus. In addition to the discomfort, tinnitus can cause sharp, stabbing pain in the ear. It is a symptom of several health conditions and can indicate the presence of a more serious underlying cause. Tinnitus can lead to irritability, concentration problems, cognitive decline, anxiety, and depression.

An earache can affect one or both ears. It feels like a burning sensation or feeling of fullness in the ears that can be accompanied by other symptoms as well. It should naturally subside within three days. If it persists more than that needs immediate medical attention, especially in children”, shares Dr. Richard Honaker

Air Pressure

Changes in air pressure can cause a sudden stabbing pain in the ear. These changes can happen during activities such as scuba diving, flying, swallowing, or yawning. Equalizing the pressure can normalize the air pressure in the ear and eliminate the pain. 

Nerve damage 

Damage to the occipital nerves (occipital neuralgia) is an uncommon cause of ear pain. It is a headache disorder that affects the nerves that run through the scalp. Other symptoms accompanying occipital nerve damage include

  • Shooting pain from the base of the head to the ears and the sides
  • Pain behind the eyes
  • Burning or throbbing 
  • Headaches  

How to get rid of sudden stabbing pain in the ear?

Sharp pain in the ear is treated depending on the underlying cause. It can be treated with prescription medication to treat the underlying condition or to manage the symptoms. Here are some possible solutions to get rid of the stabbing pain in the ear. 

  • Antibiotics such as amoxicillin and ciprofloxacin are prescribed for treating bacterial infections. If viral infections are the source of the pain, antivirals such as acyclovir and steroids are prescribed.
  • Allergic reactions and allergies are treated with antihistamines such as Loratadine and Cetirizine.
  • In the case of TMJ, muscle relaxants and antidepressants may be prescribed along with other medications to manage the symptoms. Physical therapy, behavioral therapy, and surgical treatments are the main treatment options for TMJ. 
  • Occipital neuralgia is mainly treated with physical and massage therapy. In case of seizures, anticonvulsants like gabapentin and muscle relaxants are prescribed.
  • Decongestants can help provide relief against sinusitis and nasal congestion.
  • If buildup ear wax is causing sharp ear pain, your doctor may prescribe ear drops to melt or soften the ear wax. 
  • Meniere’s disease has no cure, but the vertigo symptoms are managed through anti-nausea medications, and diuretics such as hydrochlorothiazide (HCTZ) and furosemide (Lasix) are prescribed.
  • Pain relievers (analgesics) such as acetaminophen (tylenol) and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Ibuprofen can be obtained over the counter to manage pain and inflammation.
  • You may be referred to a dentist if tooth sensitivity or jaw problems are causing the sharp pain in the ears.
Allergies cause fluid to build up in the ears leading to stabbing pain. Get antihistamine treatment now!

Home Remedies

Stabbing pain in the ear requires proper medical treatment. However, in cases of mild pain, home remedies can help get rid of the ear pain altogether. Here are some things you can try at home

  • Press a warm or cold compress on the affected ear
  • Chewing gum while at high altitude to manage ear pain from air pressure 
  • Sleep in the upright position to drain the fluids buildup in the ears
  • Ginger tea, and other warm drinks can help with lowering the inflammation.
  • Use a humidifier for nasal congestion.

How to prevent sharp ear pain?

Ear injuries and infections commonly cause sharp pain in the ears. They can be tricky to prevent, but you can try some things to maintain good ear health. 

  • Prevent irritants such as water and shampoo from entering the ears. 
  • Avoid ear trauma by wearing ear protection such as ear plugs or swimming caps when swimming. 
  • Do not probe the ear with fingers or Q-tips
  • Chew gum in high-altitude places
  • Practice good ear hygiene by keeping your ears clean and dry. 
  • Manage allergies effectively to prevent inflammation in the ear and sinuses.
  • Keep away from loud noises. Wear ear protection when visiting construction sites or concerts. 

When to consult a doctor?

Sharp ear pain can resolve on its own, but it is a cause of concern if it persists for more than 48 hours. You should get it checked out by a healthcare professional if you are experiencing other symptoms such as swelling around the ear, fluid drainage or blood from the ears, a sore throat, vomiting, and dizziness. Seek immediate medical care if severe pain suddenly stops; it could signal your eardrum ruptured.

Connect with an online healthcare expert for pain management in your ears 24/7.

FAQs about sudden stabbing pain in ear

Is sudden ear pain an emergency?

Sudden ear pain can be caused by major or minor issues. Seek emergency care if you have pain with fever, itching in the ear, hearing loss, pressure in your ears, ringing in the ears, neck stiffness, or headaches with ear pain. 

Why did my ear just pop and hurt?

Ear popping and pain is often caused by problems in the eustachian tube. These tubes are generally closed and open when you yawn, chew, or swallow. The popping sound occurs when your eustachian tubes don’t open or close properly due to fluid buildup, sinusitis, allergies, certain medications, stomach problems, etc.

What does it mean when ear pain comes and goes?

Ear pain that comes and goes is usually a sign of a minor infection. It can get better on its own within a few days without treatment. Ear pain can burn and become sharp or dull in sensation. If there is discharge from the ear, hearing loss, swelling, or fever, seek immediate help.

Why does my ear hurt worse at night?

Ear pain can get worse at night because the pressure is greater. Lying down can block the ear drainage and cause pressure and pain. Sleeping with a slightly elevated head can help with draining problems.

What happens if you ignore ear pain?

Ignoring ear pain can lead to eardrum rupturing and hearing loss. Generally, ear pain is caused by infections or fluid buildup, which creates pressure on the eardrum. Since ears are sensitive organs, ignoring the pressure for too long can cause the eardrum to rupture. 

Your Doctors Online uses high-quality and trustworthy sources to ensure content accuracy and reliability. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions and medical associations to provide up-to-date and evidence-based information to the users.

  • Yehya, Naief, and Margaret Carson. “A Stabbing Pain.” Bomb 98 (2007): 91-93.
  • Mollison, W. M. “The acute ear.” British Medical Journal 2.4633 (1949): 923.
  • Lance, James W. “The red ear syndrome.” Neurology 47.3 (1996): 617-620.

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