Understanding a Headache Behind the Ear
Have you or a loved one been experiencing a headache behind the ear? How much is it affecting your daily life? Any type of headache can range from just a low-grade annoyance to a piercing pain the prevents you from doing just about anything? Which one describes you?
Or are you the type of person who prefers to prevent health problems while they are small instead of just waiting for them to get much bigger? It’s because headaches are not just “normal” events. Nothing happens in your body unless there is a reason for it. A headache behind the ear is no exception.
And as Dr Julie Meyer Hunt, a world leading expert on head, neck and jaw problem describes, “Headaches are a sign that the brain is in trouble and that there is a compromise to the health of your nervous system.” So a headache behind the ear isn’t just a pain problem. It may actually be the sign of a more significant health problem.
How to “Read” a Headache Behind the Ear Symptoms
If you are dealing with a headache behind the ear - or any other symptom for that matter - there are a few important “rules of thumb” I want to share with you.
First, you want to be sure you aren’t dealing with something dangerous. If you experience a strong headache behind the ear with a high fever, vertigo, weakness in your body, blurry vision, speech difficulties, or an “impending sense of doom,” these are the types of events where you need to go to the emergency department. It is imperative that you have a CT or MRI scan to rule out the most serious of conditions.
Now, if the above scenario does not describe you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is okay. There is a difference between pathology, which is something like a tumour, an infection or a bleed (i.e., something you can see on a CT or MRI scan) and a functional disturbance, which is something that is affecting your nervous system but can’t be easily seen.
In my experience, these types of issues are far more common. And even if they aren’t going to kill you, they can certainly impact the quality of your life.
As another rule of thumb, if you experience the same problem for 3-consecutive days - or if you experience a recurring episode of the same type of problem, including a headache behind the ear - over a 3 week period - that is your signal that you have am issue that will not be able to “fix itself” on its own.
In other words, now is the time to do something about it before it gets worse.
What Can Cause a Headache Behind the Ear
There are four main nerves that may be responsible for producing a headache behind the ear:
- The Auriculotemporal Nerve (a branch of the glossopharngyeal nerve, aka CN IX), which is sensory for the middle or “inside” of the ear.
- The Auricular Nerve (a branch of the vagus nerve, aka CN X), which is sensory for the outside of the ear canal and the skin between the jaw and the C1 transverse process.
- The Lesser Occipital Nerve (formed by branches of the C2 and C3 nerves), which is sensory for the back of the skull behind the ears and up to the temples.
- The Great Auricular Nerve (formed by branches of the C2 and C3 nerves), which is sensory for the back of the outside of the ear and the back of the skull behind the ear.
The common characteristic of these nerves is that they are all located in the 2cm wide area where the upper cervical spine (neck) meets the skull. This part of the body is known as the craniocervical junction (CCJ) or upper cervical spine.
Unlike other regions of the spine, the top two vertebrae - the C1 (atlas) and C2 (axis) - do not contain interlocking joints. They are designed to move freely in all dimensions. 50% of the total movement in your head and neck come from these two vertebrae.
However, the exchange for this amount of flexibility is that the joints are susceptible to injury. Not necessarily the things that break or dislocate the bones in your neck, but smaller injuries that damages the soft tissues, which allow the vertebrae to move the way that they are supposed to.
If either the C1 or the C2 vertebrae are injured a “lock” out of position, it is possible that they will produce irritation to the local nerves … including any of these four particular nerves that may have a headache behind the ear.
What to do about a Headache Behind the Ear
If you experience a headache behind the ear, have you had your nervous system and upper neck examined? Even if you have had a CT, MRI or other scans of your neck, it is still possible that you have a functional issue that may be helped with Blair upper cervical care.
Blair upper cervical is a unique form of healthcare that focuses on the special relationship between the top two bones in your neck and your nervous system. Your nervous system is the master control system of your body. And your brainstem, which is the master control centre is located at the exact location of those top two bones in your neck: the C1 (atlas) and the C2 (axis).
It is the reason why we say that a headache behind the ear may be more than just a pain problem: it may be an important health problem … because if you have one problem that is affecting the nerves that go to your ear, it is possible that you have other problems that you can’t even feel yet, but that may cause other issues down the track.
Most Common Reasons Adults get a Headache Behind the Ear
If your headache behind the ear is coming from a mechanical issue from the bones in your upper neck, you may be wondering how that happened when you don’t remember having a specific injury.
The reason for that is because of your body’s brilliant ability to compensate when we jar ourselves.
How many mini-injuries have you experienced in your life? Let’s start with big events car accidents (even little ones!), tripping over something on the ground or down the stairs, smacking your head on the boot of your car or on a cabinet or on a ceiling beam. Then add all the things that you do everyday that cause strain on your neck: reading, typing, texting, driving, sleeping, stooping, and slouching.
Your body is not weak! It will use your muscles to compensate for small injuries … but can only do so for so long until it just can’t take it anymore.
So when it comes to the reason why adults get a headache behind the ear, it is my experience that it happens because of an injury that happened a very long time ago, but that has simply added up over months, years or even decades to the point that it finally appears on your radar.
Most Common Reasons Children get a Headache Behind the Ear
It is the same reason why children can get a headache behind the ear: a physical injury that affected the soft tissues in the upper part of the neck and that may be producing irritation to the surrounding nerves.
Children are not exempt from small injuries either. If you think about it, kids may actually experience many more bumps and bruises than adults: sports, concussions, running around at recess, falling off bikes, falling when learning to stand up … or even sit up! Add into the mix the possibility that birth itself - especially if prolonged labour, emergency caesarian, breech or forceps delivery is involved
Any of these injuries, even though small, may have the potential to cause injury to the upper part of a child’s neck and produce problems either immediately or even later in life.
“As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.”
There is never such a thing as a “normal headache” … but especially in children! The advantage of taking action in childhood is that it may be possible to improve not just the headaches, but so many other things later in life that may also be related to the upper neck.
Chiropractic and a Headache Behind the Ear Diagnosis
If you or your loved one is experiencing a headache behind the ear and still looking for answers, here is where Blair upper cervical care may be able to help you. But first, you may be wondering what it is (because you’ve never heard of it before … and that’s common!)
Blair upper cervical care is a unique method of chiropractic developed in the USA that does not involve any neck manipulation - no popping, twisting or cracking!
What the process involves first is a personalised assessment of your condition. We perform a series of neurological tests that identify if there is a problem with the nerves in your upper neck, including a global posture assessment, which shows if there may be any other related problems that you may never have thought were connected with your head alignment.
To do this, we used a computerised thermography instrument (called a Tytron C-5000), which uses infrared sensors to measure heat along the spine as a reflection of nerve activity. In addition, we have our own digital X-ray unit on site, which allows us to see the alignment of your neck from multiple, customised angles. Even if you have had CTs, MRI or other neck x-rays before, these tests allow us to measure additional angles that help us to diagnose the problem in your neck, and so that we can put together a care plan to assist you to reach your health goals.
Chiropractic Treatment for a Headache Behind the Ear
As a final important note, it is essential that I explain what Blair upper cervical care is and is not.
Blair upper cervical care IS a unique and specific method for aligning the vertebrae in the top of the neck as a method of improving the function of the nervous system. So the reality is that it is NOT a direct treatment for a headache behind the ear, but is a treatment for the body so that your own body may have a better opportunity to heal from whatever you may have going on.
If this concept makes sense to you - that we are not treating you for a headache behind the ear, but that we are treating your neck in order to help you be healthier with the full anticipation that it will help you headaches - then we would like to invite you to take the next step.
If you have any questions or would like to book an appointment with one of our doctors to find out if Blair upper cervical chiropractic may be right for you, please contact our office at 07 3188 9329, or send us an email. Our office is located in North Lakes, just off the Bruce Highway, serving the Brisbane, Moreton Bay and Sunshine Coast.
Take care of your neck with Atlas Health.
Aprill C, Axinn MJ, Bogduk N. Occipital headaches stemming from the lateral atlanto-axial (C1-C2) joint. Cephalgia. 2002;22(1):15-22.
Bovim G, Sand T. Cervicogenic headache, migraine without aura and tension-type headache: diagnostic blockage of greater occipital and supra-orbital nerves. Pain. 1992;51(1):43-8.
Braaf MM, Rosner S. Trauma of cervical spine as cause of chronic headache. J Trauma Acute Care Surg. May 1975;15(5):441-446).
Domínguez Salgado M, Santiago Gómez R, Campos Castelló J, Fernández de Péres Villalaín MJ.[Childhood headache. A diagnostic approach]. [Article in Spanish] An Esp Pediatr. 2002 Nov;57(5):432-43. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12467547
Eriksen K. Upper Cervical Subluxation Complex: a review of the chiropractic and medical literature. Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins. Baltimore (MD). 2004.
Gaul C, Meßlinger K, Holle-Lee D, Neeb L. [Pathophysiology of Headaches]. [Article in German]. Dtsch Med Wochenschr. 2017 Mar;142(6):402-408. doi: 10.1055/s-0042-111694. Epub 2017 Mar 22.
Hunt JM and Rochester B. (Doctors of Chiropractic). (2019, Feb 19). Taking upper cervical to the world. [Upper Cervical Marketing Podcast]
Lewis DW. Headaches in children and adolescents. Am Fam Physician. 2002 Feb 15;65(4):625-32. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11871680
Martelletti P, van Suijlekom H. Cervicogenic headache: practical approaches to therapy.
CNS Drugs. 2004;18(12):793-805. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15377169
Millstine D, Chen CY, Bauer B. Complementary and integrative medicine in the management of headache. BMJ. 2017 May 16;357:j1805. doi: 10.1136/bmj.j1805. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28512119
Mingels S, Dankaerts W, Granitzer M. Is There Support for the Paradigm 'Spinal Posture as a Trigger for Episodic Headache'? A Comprehensive Review. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2019 Mar 4;23(3):17. doi: 10.1007/s11916-019-0756-2.
Teng CC, Chai H, Lai DM, Wang SF. Cervicocephalic kinesthetic sensibility in young and middle-aged adults with or without a history of mild neck pain. Man Ther. 2007 Feb;12(1):22-8. Epub 2006 Jun 14.
Whittingham W, Ellis WB, Molyneux TP. The effect of manipulation (toggle recoil technique) for headaches with upper cervical joint dysfunction: a pilot study. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 1994;17(6):369-75.