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Ear numbness: What causes it and how to treat it

Losing sensation in one or both ears is a symptom that shouldn’t be ignored.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Jessica Hinson

Written by

Lindsey Chase


June 3, 2024

Woman looking to the left touching her ear. Woman looking to the left touching her ear.

The 3 key takeaways

  • Many factors can cause ear numbness — Something as simple as sleeping in the wrong position can cause your ear to temporarily lose sense of feeling.
  • Our ears have many sensory nerves — Cranial and spinal nerves provide feeling to the external ear, and damage to these nerves can result in numbness.
  • Know when to seek medical advice — You should talk to your doctor if you experience recurring ear numbness, particularly if you have a chronic illness.

What is ear numbness?

The feelings of numbness or tingling in the ear can be somewhat alarming, especially if you’ve never experienced it before. This loss of sensation may be due to various reasons, and in many cases, it’s not serious. However, you should find the root cause of your ear numbness to know how to proceed with treatment and prevention.

8 potential causes of ear numbness

Many of these reasons for ear numbness can be easily treated at home, but if the feeling persists or is reoccurring, you should seek medical attention because it could be a sign of an underlying health issue.

1. Earwax blockage

Earwax buildup can harden over time and become lodged in the ear canal, causing a loss of feeling in the inner ear. Feelings of clogged ears, ringing in the ear (tinnitus), and general discomfort may accompany the numbness. Fortunately, earwax can often be cleared at home using over-the-counter ear drops. If you don’t have ear drops, olive oil or almond oil can also be used in the ear to soften and eventually remove hardened wax.

2. Sleeping position

If your ear is numb first thing in the morning, it may be due to a sleeping issue. Many side sleepers put pressure on the ear they sleep on, causing blood flow loss, sometimes leading to temporary numbness. Try adjusting your sleep position or buy a more supportive pillow to resolve the issue.

3. Ear infection

Infections of the middle (otitis media) or outer ear (otitis externa) cause inflammation and fluid buildup. Ear infections put pressure on the ear nerves, which causes numbness or loss of sensation. Ear numbness is rare in these instances and will resolve as the infection clears, often with the help of antibiotics.

4. Nerve damage

Nerve damage means blood is not reaching the sensory nerves in the ears, which can lead to numbness and loss of feeling. An injury to the ear can cause this. Even a head injury unrelated to the ear can cause this damage because of how the nerves are routed. A blow to the ear or head can lead to swelling and nerve damage, which causes the ear to lose feeling. This can even happen from an ear piercing gone wrong.

5. Swimmer’s ear

Swimmer’s ear is an external ear canal infection that occurs when trapped water in the ear contains bacteria. This usually happens after swimming or showering, especially for people with small ear canals. You may also experience symptoms including muffled hearing, pain, and hearing loss.

6. Procedures or surgeries

Certain medical procedures, such as dental work or ear surgery, can cause temporary ear numbness. In these cases, the numbness is often short-lived and occurs when the anesthetics numb sensory nerves in the ear. You should consult your doctor or dentist if the sensation doesn’t resolve once the anesthetics have worn off.

7. Poor blood circulation

Like nerve damage, poor circulation happens when the blood supply does not reach nerves in the ear and causes numbness or a tingling sensation, similar to when your foot falls asleep. To stimulate circulation to these blood vessels, try holding a warm compress to your ear for a few minutes. This easy remedy encourages blood flow and often brings feeling back.

8. Diabetes

Peripheral neuropathy is nerve damage that can occur in patients with diabetes. This condition causes nerves to send pain signals unnecessarily or causes them to send no signals at all, resulting in loss of feeling. Peripheral neuropathy can also be a symptom of hormonal changes or a vitamin deficiency.

Symptoms of ear numbness

The symptoms present alongside ear numbness provide clues as to the overall issue. For example, redness or pain in the ear are common symptoms that could signify inflammation, which is often due to infection. A history of diabetes or other chronic illnesses could provide important clues to the trigger of ear numbness.

Also, when does the ear numbness occur? If it happens after a day of swimming in the ocean or pool, it could be due to swimmer’s ear. Did you sleep on your side last night? A numb ear directly after sleeping on your side could mean pressure on the ear has caused a temporary loss of sensation.

Diagnosing ear numbness

Your doctor will review your full medical history and will likely perform an ear exam when considering potential causes. If the cause is not immediately evident, your doctor may perform tests such as an MRI or CT scan to rule out any structural problems. Additionally, blood work can help with diagnosis by pointing to issues such as diabetes or possible infections.

How to prevent ear numbness

If ear numbness is a symptom of a chronic condition, such as diabetes, managing your symptoms with the help of your doctor is crucial to keep them at bay. If your ear is numb from side sleeping, purchase a more supportive pillow or try a different sleep position. You can also improve blood circulation by applying a warm compress to the affected ear.

If your ear numbness is accompanied by pain or doesn’t resolve, always contact your doctor for help.

Frequently asked questions

What does it mean when your ear is numb? 

Some people experience ear numbness from a blockage, such as ear wax, or inflammation due to illness. Sometimes, ear numbness can be a symptom of a chronic illness such as diabetes.

How do you cure numb ears?

Understanding the cause of numb ears is crucial for treatment. Consider your overall health and medical history. Removing a foreign object from your ear can resolve ear numbness, or encouraging blood circulation with a warm compress stimulates blood flow.

Can a pinched nerve cause ear numbness? 

Yes, pinched nerves can cause numbness and loss of feeling in many parts of the body. Sensation to the outer ear is triggered by a branch of the mandibular nerve, which can be damaged or pinched due to dental work or head trauma.

What are the most common causes of ear numbness? 

Common causes of numb ears include ear wax buildup, nerve damage, swimmer’s ear, and poor circulation.

How is ear numbness diagnosed? 

A visit to your doctor can help pinpoint the cause of ear numbness as a symptom. This may lead to a medical diagnosis, which may cause damaged nerves or loss of sensation.

What treatments are available for ear numbness? 

Suitable treatment depends on the cause of your ear numbness. Ear blockages can often be cleared at home using ear drops, softening the hard wax. A warm compress can be used to bring blood flow and sensation back to the ear. However, it’s best to discuss potential solutions with your doctor if numb ears are a symptom of a larger illness.