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Why Do My Ears Hurt When I Run? 11 Possible Causes + Solutions 

Get to the bottom of your ear pain while running.

Runners can experience a wide variety of ailments, from headaches and dizziness after running to lower back and muscle pain.

As a running coach, I have also had athletes ask, “Why do my ears hurt when I run?” or, “Why do my ears hurt after running?”

There are various common causes of ear pain after running, ranging from general reasons such as an ear infection to running-specific reasons such as listening to music too loud or tension in the temporomandibular joint while you run.

In this guide, we will discuss possible causes of ear pain after running or ears hurting while running, give you tips to prevent ear pain after running, and suggest when it’s time to see your healthcare provider.

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Is It Normal For My Ears To Hurt When I Run?

Before we discuss common reasons that your ears hurt while or after running, it’s important to disclose that I am not a doctor. 

As a running coach, I have experience with runners complaining of ear discomfort while running or ear pain after running. Still, there can also be underlying medical conditions for earaches that require professional medical care. 

If you have concerns about a possible infection, gastroesophageal reflux disease, TMJ, or other medical reasons for ear pain, you should work with your healthcare provider or see an ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT). 

Note that while there are some pretty common causes of ear pain while running that have simple solutions, it is not normal for your ears to hurt when you run.

Therefore, you should troubleshoot the issue rather than tough it out and assume everyone else has ear pain when running.

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Why Do My Ears Hurt When I Run?

Here are some of the most common reasons that your ears hurt after running:

#1: Painful Earbuds

Many runners like to run with music, podcasts, audiobooks, or some other form of media. I often fall into this camp, so I understand the desire to run with earbuds.

However, running with earbuds poses various challenges, from safety risks if you block out all of the ambient noise to potential ear pain after running.

If you wear earbuds such as Apple AirPods that fit into your ear canal, you can develop ear pain after running if the fit is poor and the earbuds compress your outer ear or ear canal.

This is especially common in cold weather if you wear a tight headband or beanie over your earbuds because the added compression puts even more pressure on the earbuds’ head.

Although you don’t want your AirPods or your earbuds falling out while you run, if they are jammed in your ears, it can certainly hurt.

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#2: Your Music Is Too Loud

If your eardrums throb after you run and you are listening to music in headphones or earphones, your music might be too loud.

Like being at an overly loud concert, ears have a tolerance for sound, and loud music can potentially cause hearing loss.

#3: Jaw Tension

One of the most common causes of ear pain for runners is excessive tension in the jaw. Clenching your teeth while running can cause the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) to become quite sore.

Additionally, if you run first thing in the morning and grind your teeth at night, TMJ pain may linger from the overnight jaw tension, causing your ears to hurt while running.

#4: Dehydration

It may sound odd that dehydration can cause earaches after running, but the temporomandibular joint needs a healthy amount of joint fluid to be loose and lubricated.

If you are dehydrated, there can be excessive friction and discomfort in the TMJ, radiating to the ear canal, inner ear, or middle ear.

#5: Air Pressure Changes

The middle and inner ear tissues are very sensitive to barometric pressure changes. This is why our ears pop in an airplane or at elevation.

If you are running at high altitude or experiencing many elevation changes during your run, there can be pressure buildup on one side of your eardrum relative to the other. This is known as barotrauma.1Ear barotrauma Information | Mount Sinai – New York. (n.d.). Mount Sinai Health System. Retrieved March 20, 2024, from https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/diseases-conditions/ear-barotrauma#:~:text=Ear%20barotrauma%20causes%20discomfort%20in

‌Another possible cause of earaches after running due to air pressure changes is running in cold weather. Cold temperatures can also affect the eardrum and eustachian tubes.

The inner ear is not well insulated and tissues that make up the outer ear and inner ear are innervated with many nerves and blood vessels.

The blood vessels constrict in cold temperatures, decreasing blood flow to the eardrums and eustachian tubes. This can cause ear discomfort, ringing in your ears, and ear sensitivity after running in cold temperatures.

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#6: Ear Infections

Now we move more into the possible causes of your ears hurting after running due to medical conditions.

Ear infections in the eustachian tubes or middle ear, called otitis media,2(2023). Pennmedicine.org. https://www.pennmedicine.org/for-patients-and-visitors/patient-information/conditions-treated-a-to-z/ear-infection-middle-ear#:~:text=The%20most%20common%20type%20of can cause ear pain, dizziness, ear popping, vestibular disturbances, low-grade fevers, and general feelings of malaise.

#7: Sinus Infections

Some sinuses drain near the ear, so if you have a sinus infection that causes congestion and pressure buildup, you might have ear and facial pain that is exacerbated when running.

#8: Seasonal Allergies 

Seasonal allergies can cause your ears to feel swollen and stuffy.

#9: Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

We generally think of GERD symptoms as being limited to the chest and stomach, such as heartburn, bloating, and abdominal pain, but gastroesophageal reflux disease can also cause earaches as the acid travels up the esophagus and causes radiating symptoms in the neck and head.

Other symptoms of acid reflux or GERD include nausea, burping, a feeling of fullness, bloating or belly distention, a sore throat, a lump in the throat, coughing, chest pain, or general stomach burning or discomfort.

Unfortunately, GERD is fairly common among adults, with an estimated 20% of adults in the United States suffering from this condition, according to StatPearls.3Antunes, C., Curtis, S. A., & Aleem, A. (2023). Gastroesophageal reflux disease. National Library of Medicine; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441938/

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#10: Swimmer’s Ear

Swimmer’s ear, called otitis externa,4Swimmer’s Ear. (n.d.). Www.hopkinsmedicine.org. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/swimmers-ear#:~:text=Swimmer is an ear infection in the outer ear canal.

If you do a lot of cross-training workouts in the pool, you may develop this condition, as trapped water in the ear can allow bacteria to grow.

You can also develop this type of ear infection from extra earwax buildup or being in warm, humid conditions.

In addition to ear pain, you may also have a redness in the outer ear, a feeling of a blockage that causes mild hearing loss or difficulty hearing, tinnitus, fever, swollen glands, popping in the ears, and general malaise.

Running doesn’t necessarily worsen swimmer’s ear, but the increased blood flow can cause more pressure and pain around the eardrum, exacerbating ear pain when running.

#11: Perforated Tympanic Membrane (Ruptured Eardrum)

A more serious cause of severe ear pain is a ruptured eardrum, which can occur due to trauma, sudden pressure changes, extremely loud sounds, and other issues.

Again, running won’t typically cause this issue, but ear pain may be worse when running.

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How Do I Prevent My Ears Hurting When I Run?

Now that we have covered some of the common causes of ear pain when running let’s look at the solutions and treatment options:

  • Use headphones that go over your ears, like earmuffs or ear hooks on your earbuds.
  • Turn down loud music.
  • Use bone conduction headphones, which sit outside of your ear canal and don’t direct music into your eardrum.
  • Chew gum. It can potentially help when running in the cold or at a high altitude to try and prevent pressure differences on each side of the eardrum.
  • Wait long enough after your pre-run meal or snack to run to prevent ear pain from GERD. Also, avoid acid reflux trigger foods such as spicy foods, acidic foods like citrus, and fatty foods in your pre-workout nutrition.
  • Take over-the-counter decongestants that can potentially help with seasonal allergies or sinus pressure.
  • Use ear drops to help prevent swimmer’s ear. Put them in right after swimming and make sure that all of the water has drained from your ear canal. Also, ensure you are not wearing a tight swim cap with swimming headphones pressing into your ears.
  • Speak with your healthcare provider about antibiotics for any type of ear infection.

If your earaches are accompanied by a headache, check out this next guide:

References

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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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