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What is the Mastoid Process?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 23, 2024
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The mastoid process is a part of the skull located just behind the ear. It is part of the temporal bone, the large bone that runs along the middle bottom of the skull. Several different roles are filled by this bone, and it is one of the areas of the bone structure that usually clearly differs between men and women. Men have a more pronounced mastoid process than women and this can be helpful when examining human remains belonging to an unidentified person.

This part of the skull projects from the temporal bone and is roughly pyramidal or conical in shape. One important role for this bone is as a point of attachment for several muscles, the splenius capitis, longissimus capitis, diagastric, and sternocleidomastoid. These muscles are one reason the mastoid process tends to be larger in men, because men have bigger muscles as a general rule and thus require larger points of attachment.

The term “mastoid” is derived from the Greek word for “breast,” a reference to the shape of this bone. The temporal bone contains another protrusion, the styloid process, located in close proximity to the mastoid process. The styloid process also serves as a point of attachment for muscles and has a distinctive pointed shape akin to that of a stylus, explaining the origins of the name.

Inside the mastoid process there are a number of air-filled cavities known as mastoid cells. These cells communicate with the middle ear. They can be involved in ear infections when the ear becomes plugged and infectious material drains into the mastoid cells. Treatment for such infections requires antibiotics, and sometimes irrigating the ear to remove material that has built up is also necessary. An ear, nose, and throat specialist can accurately diagnose and treat infections of the middle ear before they contribute to the development of hearing loss and other potential complications.

Blows to the head can cause damage to the temporal bone and mastoid process. When the temporal bone is injured, there is usually a concern that the brain is injured as well as a result of the trauma. In cases where people experience fractures or bruises to the temporal bone, including the mastoid process, they can be identified with medical imaging studies. Treatment is usually concerned with addressing any damage to the brain first, and then determining whether action needs to be taken to repair or stabilize the fracture.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon992970 — On Oct 14, 2015

I had the bone behind my ear removed from a blow to the ear. Would that have been dangerous? I believe it was a temporal mastoid.

By ready2talk — On Sep 08, 2012

Has anyone had a "successful" mastoidectomy? I have had issues with water in the ear after swimming and no longer put my head under water. But I have also had multiple ear and sinus infections as well. The hearing in that ear is definitely reduced. I turn my head to hear. Has anyone had success in increasing hearing and reducing pain after a mastoidectomy? Thanks in advance for any insight!

By StarJo — On Jun 26, 2011

My grandmother got an ear infection once, and her doctor performed a mastoidectomy to remove the mastoid cells. The surgery left her with frequent dizzy spells and partial hearing loss. Unfortunately, at that time, the medical community considered mastoidectomy to be the only option.

Thankfully, today, mastoidectomy is not often needed. Most mastoid infections are now treated with antibiotics.

A mastoidectomy also comes with the risks that a patient will experience changes in taste, a recurring or persistent infection, ear noise (tinnitus), and weakness in the facial muscles.

Mastoidectomy is still used, but only for more serious problems, such as complications due to an ear infection or to insert a cochlear implant.

By Oceana — On Jun 24, 2011

@Perdido - Thanks for the advice, but I had already tried both of those methods. The ear drops usually work for me, as well, but I guess the water had gotten too far back too quickly. The combination of ear drops and Q-tips almost always works, but this time, nothing helped but my visit to the ENT doctor.

By Perdido — On Jun 23, 2011

@Oceana - Did you try using those ear drops made for swimmers? The drops supposedly contain a lot of alcohol, which helps the water inside of your ears dry up faster. I use them after swimming, and they always seem to help me.

Another trick you can try to prevent the water from getting all the way to your mastoid cells and getting stuck is sticking a Q-tip as far as it will safely go into your ear. The Q-tip often pops any bubbles that might be trapping the water, and you feel it flow out instantly. You can hear better right away if it works.

By Oceana — On Jun 22, 2011

I recently had to be treated for an ear infection, but I did not know about the structure of the mastoid process. Now I know where the trapped fluid got lodged.

I had swimming pool water stuck in my ears for over a week. I kept thinking it would eventually fall out on its own, but instead, I developed pain and sensitivity to touch.

My ENT doctor irrigated my ear and flushed out the water. Instantly, I could hear again. Everything suddenly sounded so loud!

Doctors don't usually go into detail explaining the names for bodily structures and such. My doctor just told me that water was trapped and needed to be freed. I like having a better understanding and a mental picture of what is going on inside of me, though. It's nice to know what the mastoid process is.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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