Man making his ears pop on an airplane.

Have you ever been on a plane and you start to have problems with pressure in your ears? Where suddenly, your ears seem to be blocked? Your neighbor probably suggested chewing gum. And while that sometimes works, I bet you don’t know why. Here are a few strategies for popping your ears when they feel clogged.

Pressure And Your Ears

Turns out, your ears are rather wonderful at controlling air pressure. Owing to a useful little piece of anatomy called Eustachian tubes, the pressure inside of your ears is able to regulate, adjust, and equalize to the pressure in their environment. Usually.

Irregularities in air pressure can cause problems in situations where your Eustachian tubes are having trouble adjusting. If you’re sick, for example, or there is a lot of fluid accumulation behind your ears, you might start dealing with something known as barotrauma, an uncomfortable and sometimes painful feeling of the ears caused by pressure difference. At higher altitudes, you experience a small amount of this exact condition.

You generally won’t even detect small pressure changes. But you can feel pressure, pain, and crackling if your Eustachian tubes aren’t functioning correctly or if the pressure changes are sudden.

What is The Cause of That Crackling?

Hearing crackling inside of your ears is rather unusual in a day-to-day setting, so you might be justifiably curious where that comes from. The crackling sound is often compared to the sound of “Rice Krispies”. In most cases, what you’re hearing is air moving around obstructions or impediments in your eustachian tubes. Unregulated changes in air pressure, failure of the eustachian tubes, or even congestion can all be the cause of those blockages.

Equalizing Ear Pressure

Any crackling, particularly if you’re at high altitudes, will usually be caused by pressure imbalances. In that circumstance, you can use the following technique to equalize ear pressure:

  • Frenzel Maneuver: If nothing else is effective, try this. With your mouth closed and your nose pinched, try making “k” sounds with your tongue. Clicking may also help.
  • Yawning: For the same reason that swallowing works, try yawning. (If you’re having trouble forcing a yawn, just think about someone else yawning and you’ll most likely start to yawn yourself.)
  • Try Swallowing: Pressure in the eustachian tubes will be equalized when the muscles that are used to swallow are activated. This, incidentally, is also the reason why you’re told to chew gum when flying; the swallowing is what equalizes the ear and chewing causes you to swallow.
  • Valsalva Maneuver: If you’re still having difficulty, try this: after you pinch your nose and shut your mouth, try blowing out without letting any air escape. Theoretically, the pressure should be equalized when the air you try to blow out moves over your eustachian tubes.
  • Toynbee Maneuver: This is really just an elaborate way to swallow. With your mouth shut, pinch your nose and swallow. If you take a mouth full of water (which will help you keep your mouth closed) it may be helpful.

Medications And Devices

If self-administering these maneuvers doesn’t help, there are medications and devices that are specially produced to help you manage the ear pressure. Whether these medicines and techniques are right for you will depend on the root cause of your barotrauma, as well as the severity of your symptoms.

At times that may mean special earplugs. Nasal decongestants will be appropriate in other situations. Your situation will dictate your response.

What’s The Trick?

The real key is figuring out what works for you, and your eustachian tubes.

If, however, you’re finding that that feeling of having a blocked ear doesn’t go away, you should come and see us. Because this can also be a sign of hearing loss.

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.

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