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Am Fam Physician. 2018 Jan 1;97(1):20-27.

Ear Pain: Diagnosing Common and Uncommon Causes.

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Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center, Fort Gordon, GA, USA.


Otalgia (ear pain) is a common presentation in the primary care setting with many diverse causes. Pain that originates from the ear is called primary otalgia, and the most common causes are otitis media and otitis externa. Examination of the ear usually reveals abnormal findings in patients with primary otalgia. Pain that originates outside the ear is called secondary otalgia, and the etiology can be difficult to establish because of the complex innervation of the ear. The most common causes of secondary otalgia include temporomandibular joint syndrome and dental infections. Primary otalgia is more common in children, whereas secondary otalgia is more common in adults. History and physical examination usually lead to the underlying cause; however, if the diagnosis is not immediately clear, a trial of symptomatic treatment, imaging studies, and consultation may be reasonable options. Otalgia may be the only presenting symptom in several serious conditions, such as temporal arteritis and malignant neoplasms. When risk factors for malignancy are present (e.g., smoking, alcohol use, diabetes mellitus, age 50 years or older), computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, or otolaryngology consultation may be warranted.

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