Ear cartilage pain when sleeping on the side is a relatively common occurrence for many people. This refers to pain in the outer ear, which is typically made up of auricular cartilage and skin. When you experience this pain, you are likely to feel tenderness in the outside of your ear that could radiate down the side of your jaw. It is usually fairly easy to distinguish between ear cartilage pain and pain inside the ear itself.
Naturally, the question on your mind is: why do my ears hurt when I sleep on them? As it turns out, there are plenty of things that might trigger this issue.
What can cause pain in the ear when sleeping on your side?
You only need a basic understanding of anatomy to know that the ear is a very complex part of the human body. The outer ear contains a lot of cartilage that is designed to be very elastic. Unfortunately, this can sometimes be more of a bad thing than a good thing – as you’ll see when we go through the common reasons you have outer ear pain when sleeping on your side.
Extremely soft ears
Some people are born with naturally soft ears because the fibrocartilage that makes up the outer portion of the ear is a lot softer and more flexible than normal. Consequently, this means that the pinna – the very outer part of your ear that gives it its shape – can sometimes become folded over and put under a lot of pressure.
This is typically caused by a hard pillow that forces the ear to fold over, and the good news is that you can treat it very easily. Obviously, one idea is to simply avoid sleeping on your side – which would treat the majority of causes of painful outer ears. But, another top tip is to get a softer pillow. This creates less resistance, allowing your ear to avoid folding over and being put under pressure. Thus, you should see a reduction in pain without resorting to painkillers.
Yes, hard pillows can be a cause of ear cartilage pain when sleeping, even if you don’t have extremely soft ears. People with normal cartilage in their ears are still at risk of developing soreness if their pillows are too soft.
Why? As mentioned above, it’s all down to the pressure exerted on your ear. If you are lying on a hard surface, the weight of your head is pushing down on the side of your face, exerting a lot of force. The average human head will weigh around a dozen pounds, give or take. Now, think about what happens when you sleep on your side. You’ve got the weight of your head – plus gravity – bearing down on your pillow. If your pillow is too hard, all of that force ends up getting felt in the side of your face, including your ear. As such, you are bound to endure some ear pain because the cartilage and structures of the outer ear are so small and sensitive.
The solution is very simple; find a pillow that offers more comfort and less resistance. You can get softer ones or ones made from memory foam that allow better dissipation of the weight of your head, so the pain should subside.
Sleeping on one side for too long
Similarly, sleeping on one side of your body for too long during the night could cause ear pain. Again, this is largely down to the force exerted on your ear when you lie on it. If you roll over and sleep on the other side, you shouldn’t feel as much pain.
Even with a good pillow and mattress, you might still suffer from ear cartilage pain when sleeping on your side if you stay on the same side for too long during the night. A large proportion of people enjoy side sleeping, and it does have its benefits. One study uncovered that it can help people with acid reflux, while another suggests that it is the optimal position to remove waste matter from your brain.
However, if you constantly experience ear pain, it is best to try a new sleeping position. Attempt to sleep on your back as this is a much more optimal position than sleeping on your stomach. There is countless evidence out there that states stomach sleeping is the worst position for spinal health. On the other hand, sleeping on your back can provide similar benefits to side sleeping, but without the risk of ear pain. Try it and see if this works for you.
Lastly, your outer ear pain could be caused by a new or existing ear piercing. If you have recently had your ears pierced, they are likely to be tender. Thus, sleeping on this ear will lead to pain when you wake up.
Similarly, sleeping with piercings can cause pain as you have something pressing against the cartilage in your ear. Always make sure you take your piercings out when you go to bed if you are prone to sleeping on your side. If you have recently had a piercing, try to avoid sleeping on this side of your body as well.
When should you see a doctor?
Generally, ear pain from sleeping on your side is not a major issue. If you try some of the advice above, you should see relief without needing to take any drastic measures.
Nevertheless, if the pain persists or gets worse after you have tried to change your sleeping habits, it is worth contacting a doctor to get your ears checked. There could be an underlying problem that’s causing the pain.
Get help from an online doctor
At DrHouse, we have board-certified clinicians that can conduct virtual consultations at a moment’s notice. If you need help diagnosing your ear pain, download our app and schedule your first consultation right away.
Ear cartilage pain when sleeping on your side is more common than you think. In most cases, it is caused by too much pressure on your ears, either caused by a hard pillow or sleeping on one side of your body for too long. Excessively flexible and soft cartilage can also be a reason for this issue, as can ear piercings. The good news is that you can make some easy changes to your sleeping arrangements that should see the pain disappear.
- Katz LC, Just R, Castell DO. Body position affects recumbent postprandial reflux. J Clin Gastroenterol. 1994 Jun;18(4):280-3. doi: 10.1097/00004836-199406000-00004
- Hedok Lee, Lulu Xie, Mei Yu, Hongyi Kang, Tian Feng, Rashid Deane, Jean Logan, Maiken Nedergaard and Helene Benveniste. The Effect of Body Posture on Brain Glymphatic Transport. Journal of Neuroscience 5 August 2015, 35 (31) 11034-11044; DOI: Doi: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1625-15.2015 .