Man making his ears pop on an airplane.

Have you ever been on an airplane and you start to have issues with ear pressure? Where out of the blue, your ears seem to be plugged? Your neighbor probably suggested chewing gum. And while that sometimes works, I bet you don’t know why. If your ears feel blocked, here are a few tricks to make your ears pop.

Your Ears And Pressure

Turns out, your ears are pretty good at controlling air pressure. Thanks to a handy little piece of physiology called Eustachian tubes, the pressure of the environment is able to be regulated, adjusted, and equalized inside of your ears. Usually.

There are some instances when your Eustachian tubes may have problems adjusting, and irregularities in the pressure of the air can cause problems. If you’re sick, for example, or there is a lot of fluid accumulation in the back of your ears, you might start suffering from something known as barotrauma, an uncomfortable and sometimes painful sensation in the ears caused by pressure difference. At higher altitudes, you experience a small amount of this exact situation.

Most of the time, you won’t recognize changes in pressure. But you can feel pressure, pain, and crackling if your Eustachian tubes aren’t functioning properly or if the pressure changes are abrupt.

Where’s That Crackling Originating From?

You might become curious what’s causing that crackling since it’s not prevalent in day to day circumstances. The crackling noise is commonly compared to the sound of “Rice Krispies”. Usually, air moving around blockages of the eustachian tubes is the cause of this crackling. The cause of those obstructions can range from congestion to Eustachian tube malfunction to unregulated changes in air pressure.

How to Neutralize The Pressure in Your Ears

Most commonly, any crackling is going to be caused by a pressure difference in your ears (especially if you’re on a plane). In that situation, you can use the following technique to neutralize ear pressure:

  • Valsalva Maneuver: Try this if you’re still having trouble: after you pinch your nose and shut your mouth, try blowing out without allowing any air get out. Theoretically, the air you try to blow out should go through your eustachian tubes and neutralize the pressure.
  • Frenzel Maneuver: If nothing else works, try this. With your mouth closed and your nose pinched, try making “k” sounds with your tongue. You can also try clicking to see if that helps.
  • Yawning: For the same reason that swallowing can be effective, try yawning. (If you’re having trouble getting sleepy, just think of somebody else yawning and you’ll most likely start to yawn yourself.)
  • Toynbee Maneuver: This is really just an elaborate way to swallow. With your mouth closed, pinch your nose and swallow. If you take water in your mouth (which will help you keep your mouth closed) it could be helpful.
  • Swallow: The muscles that activate when swallowing will force your eustachian tubes to open, equalizing the pressure. This also explains the common advice to chew gum on a plane; the chewing causes you to swallow, and swallowing is what forces the ears to equalize.

Devices And Medications

There are medications and devices that are designed to manage ear pressure if none of these maneuvers work. Whether these techniques or medications are right for you will depend on the root cause of your barotrauma, and also the extent of your symptoms.

Special earplugs will do the job in some situations. Nasal decongestants will be appropriate in other cases. Your scenario will dictate your remedy.

What’s The Trick?

Finding what works best for you and your eustachian tubes is the real secret.

If, however, you’re finding that that experience of having a blocked ear doesn’t go away, you should call us for a consultation. Because this can also be a sign of hearing loss.

 

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