Why do my ears hurt when I run?
When running, you might expect discomfort such as burning legs, tight shoulders or being out of breath… but ear pain probably isn’t on the top of your list.
Yet, ear pain while running is very common and can be down to a number of things.
Whatever the culprit, running through ear pain can make it worse – so understanding the cause and finding a solution is crucial. And we’re here to help.
We spoke with fitness experts and medical professionals to explain:
- The science behind ear pain
- The 9 most common causes of ear pain while running
- How to prevent them
So, let’s get started!
The science behind ear Pain
Ear pain is most commonly due to a change of pressure within the inner ear. This can be caused by various and often subtle fluctuations in our biology and/or changes in our environment.
Our ears are highly sensitive and susceptible to such pressure changes, which can be caused by many physiological variables including muscle tension, blood vessel restriction, mucous build-up, blockages and even your gut health.
External factors such as cold weather, hilly routes and altitude changes can also lead to pressure change and ear pain when running.
These various factors lead to pressure accumulating in your ears’ eustachian tubes. These connect the ear to the back of your throat and help maintain equal air pressure in your ears.
Trapped moisture from sweat, blockages such as earwax buildup, as well as temperature change can cause the blood vessels in your ear to dilate or constrict, leading to changes in pressure which trigger ear pains.
“Ear pain after running happens as the nerve buds at the end of nerve canals lack adequate protection; hence an impulse reaction of pain is sensed after a run,” explains FitShape chief editor Emma Pyke.
9 causes + Preventions for Ear Pain When Running
Now that you know a little about the science behind ear pains, it’s time to dive deeper into the causes and how you can prevent them.
#1: Tight jaw.
“There is a prominent nerve that runs from the course of the jaw to the eardrum” explains Anthony Puopolo – RexMD Chief Medical Officer.
“If while running you are clenching your jaw, grinding your teeth, or flexing facial muscles, you may be overstimulating this nerve and causing yourself pain,” says Puopolo.
Try training yourself to relax your facial muscles during your runs.
If pain starts, slow down, relax and stretch your face, tilt your neck side to side and ease back into running being mindful to keep your face relaxed.
“To prevent ear pain while running, runners can massage his or her ear before running to ensure proper blood flow and relieve pressure” suggests HealthyLand CEO Danielle Edenworth.
#2: Ill-fitting earphones.
“If your earphones don’t fit correctly, they can cause irritation and discomfort by applying too much pressure on the ear canal”, says Dr Michael Newman.
“Earphones and headphones that lay on top of your ears should be avoided if at all feasible” advises Dr Newman.
When buying headphones, look for ones that fit snugly in your ears and don’t slip out easily – but that still allow airflow in and out of the ears rather than suctioning themselves in.
Some good earphones include Apple’s air pods, Jaybird Vista 2 and Jabra Elite Active 75t.
Related: Running with Air Pods: How to Use Them Effectively
Also, always clean your earphones after use to prevent bacteria build-up and thus possible ear infections.
Related: What to Wear While Running: The Gear You Need to Start Running
#3: Loud music.
On the topic of earphones, listening to loud music is also a risk factor for developing ear pain when running.
Listening to loud music is not only dangerous because you can’t hear sounds around you like oncoming traffic but it can also lead to ear pain, ruptured drums and even hearing loss.
Listening to loud music can damage tiny hair cells and membranes in the cochlea, a bone inside the inner ear.
These cells vibrate in response to the noise and when overstimulated, they can become permanently damaged.
Avoid listening to loud music and follow the volume warnings on your music device.
Try listening to podcasts or audiobooks instead which may require lower volume, or consider running without music which research shows can have a calming effect plus many other benefits.
Alternatively, try listening to music only every other run, try alternating your listening in one ear at a time and always keep the volume low or even
#4: Cold air.
Running, especially for long periods, can cause your blood vessels to constrict causing a build-up of pressure and tension in your ears as you exercise.
“Running in the cold can exacerbate this, causing your ears’ blood vessels to further constrict”, explains Brian Paonessa, founder and CEO of Fit Functional Nurses.
Related: When Is It Too Cold To Run Outside?
“The blood arteries feeding the ears frequently constrict due to cold air causing a decrease in the ear’s blood flow. Oxygen may then build up in the inner ear causing high pressure” he explains.
Try earmuffs, a headband, or a hat when running in cooler weather to protect your ears from the cold air.
You can also try massaging the ears during your runs to stimulate blood flow and warmth to the ears.
Related: Running in Snow and Ice: How to Run Safely in Winter Weather
#5: Change in altitude.
A change in altitude can also cause increased pressure within your ears.
As above, this causes your blood vessels to constrict which then places strain on your eardrums – resulting in pain when running.
“Try yawning, swallowing, chewing gum or other jaw release exercises to balance the pressure in your ears”, advises Dr Boyer.
Related: Altitude Training Guide for Runners
#6: Ear infection or allergies.
“Blockage in the eustachian tubes, the small tubes in the ears that regulate pressure, caused by ear infections or allergies can lead to a build-up of pressure inside the ears” notes Dr Daniel Boyer.
These discomforts may also result in the development of some ear conditions like perilymphatic fistula (PLF) so it’s important to address them.
Dr Boyer recommends talking to a pharmacist or doctor if you suspect an ear infection or allergy as the culprit behind your ear pain while running. Some signs to look out for are:
- pain inside the ear
- a high temperature
- being sick
- a lack of energy
- difficulty hearing
- discharge running out of the ear
- a feeling of pressure or fullness inside the ear
- itching and irritation in and around the ear
#7: Earwax build-up.
Another blockage of the eustachian tubes can be caused by a build-up of earwax or sweat in the ear, with symptoms including dizziness and vertigo if the blockage is severe.
You can over the counter earwax removal kits or ear drops like Swimmer’s Ear if you suspect blockage by wax or sweat.
If that doesn’t help, seek help from a doctor as you may need them professionally cleaned out.
Keep your ears clean by taking a hot shower immediately after your runs, making sure that you dry your ears completely with a towel using your index finger and try sleeping in an upright position to ease any pain.
To get immediate relief, apply a warm compress to your ear with light pressure.
#8: Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD).
You may not expect gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) to affect your ears, but about 40 per cent of people with GERD have ear pain during exercise – the more vigorous the exercise, the greater the discomfort.
GERD causes heartburn in which the contents of the stomach rises up into the oesophagus, causing ear pain as well as coughing, sore throat and chest pain as all these areas are connected.
“GERD can be very serious and even lead to complete hearing loss – so it’s crucial to get yourself treated quickly if you suspect it to be the culprit of your ear pain,” says Dr Shyam Kalyan.
Some symptoms of GERD to look out for are:
- A burning sensation in your chest (usually after eating)
- Chest pain or difficulty swallowing
- Regurgitation of food or sour liquid
- Sensation of a lump in your throat
#9: Ruptured Eardrum.
A ruptured eardrum may also be a cause of your ear pain when running. However, if you have a ruptured eardrum, your ear pain will be present even when not exercising.
A ruptured eardrum occurs when small tears appear in the thin tissue that separates the ear canal from the middle ear.
It is usually caused by an ear infection, sudden pressure changes, loud sounds, ear trauma, or foreign objects.
Ruptured eardrums are not commonly caused by running or other forms of exercise. However, if your eardrum has ruptured without your knowledge, exercising can worsen the condition.
See a doctor who can assess the situation prescribe ear drops to help heal the eardrum quickly so you can feel better and get back to the roads.
If after trying these tips your ear pain persists or worsens, be sure to see a doctor.
Ears fixed, but Need help with your Training?
Why do my ears hurt when I run? Answered! But what about help with training?
We would love to help you with your running goals. Check out our marathon training resources for more information.