What Is Red Ear Syndrome?

If your earlobes are bright red and burn, then you may have red ear syndrome (RES). It’s such a rare condition that we still have much to learn about it. We do know there are two major types:

  • Primary red ear syndrome. This is the most common form. It’s more likely to affect children, teens, and young adults. Eight out of 10 people in this group have migraines or a history of migraines.
  • Secondary red ear syndrome. Older people and women are most likely to get this kind. It’s linked to cluster headaches, upper spine problems, and TMJD, a disorder that causes jaw pain.

Symptoms

The telltale signs are red earlobes that burn. You may notice the symptoms in one or both ears, or they might switch from one side of your face to the other. How much pain they cause, how often they happen, and how long they last varies from person to person.

Most people with red ear say the burn is mild and feels like an ache. But for some, the pain can be sharp and severe. It can also spread from your lobes to your cheeks, jaw, or back of your head.

A typical attack lasts 30 to 60 minutes. In rare cases, they run longer than 4 hours. Most people have at least one attack per day and sometimes as many as 20. They usually happen during the daytime.

This condition has no complications and isn’t deadly.

What Brings on an Attack?

Often they seem to come out of nowhere. Sometimes they result from certain triggers.

Common triggers:

  • Touching or rubbing your ear
  • Heat
  • Neck movements
  • Exercise

Less common triggers:

What Causes It?

Doctors aren’t sure what causes red ear syndrome, but they’ve found clues in the nervous system. Nerves in the earlobes reach back to the upper cervical spine and brainstem, the source of many sensations we feel as pain. Other ear nerves connect to a branch of the trigeminal nerve, which extends to the front part of your brain, face, and jaw. These systems also play a role in migraines.

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Researchers also think upper spine disorders, TMJD, damage to the thalamus, and shingles could be causes of secondary red ear syndrome.

RES may also be related to erythromelalgia, a condition that causes heat, pain, and redness in your feet and hands.

People with migraine, cluster headaches, injuries to the cervical spine (the part of the spine in your neck), and TMJD are most likely to have red ear syndrome. Though people with primary RES tend to be younger, both types can begin at any age.

How Is It Treated?

There’s no magic bullet that stops a red ear attack. What works for one person rarely works for another. Drugs used to treat migraine often work best. These include:

Surgery and home remedies don’t help much either, though some people get relief from ice packs.

Can It Be Prevented?

There is no way to prevent red ear syndrome.

What’s Next?

Red ear syndrome was first reported in 1994. Since then, only about 100 people have been studied. No one really knows how many people have it. More research is needed to help understand what causes RES and how to treat it.

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When you talk to your doctor about red ear syndrome, let her know if you have migraine, cluster headaches, upper spine injuries, or TMJD. If she thinks you have secondary RES, she may suggest an MRI of your neck or brain.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on September 24, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

The Journal of Headache and Pain: “The red ear syndrome.”

Headache: “Red Ear: Syndrome or Symptom?”

Mayo Clinic: “Migraine.”

Deborah Friedman, MD, University of Texas Southwest Medical Center, Dallas.

National Institutes of Health: “Erythromelalgia.”

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