Man making his ears pop on an airplane.

Ever have troubles with your ears on a plane? Where all of a sudden, your ears seem to be plugged? Someone you know may have suggested chewing gum. And while that sometimes works, I bet you don’t recognize why. Here are a few strategies for popping your ears when they feel clogged.

Pressure And Your Ears

Turns out, your ears are rather good at regulating air pressure. Thanks to a useful little piece of anatomy called Eustachian tubes, the pressure of the environment is able to be regulated, adjusted, and equalized inside of your ears. Usually.

Inequalities in air pressure can cause issues in situations where your Eustachian tubes are having trouble adjusting. There are times when you may be suffering from an unpleasant and frequently painful condition called barotrauma which occurs when there is an accumulation of fluid at the back of the ears or when you’re sick. At higher altitudes, you feel a small amount of this exact situation.

You generally won’t even detect small pressure changes. But when those differences are sudden, or when your Eustachian tubes aren’t working quite right, you can experience pressure, pain, and even crackling in your ears.

Where’s That Crackling Originating From?

You might become curious where that crackling is coming from because it’s not prevalent in day to day situations. The sound is commonly compared to a “Rice Krispies” type of noise. In many cases, what you’re hearing is air moving around blockages or impediments in your eustachian tubes. Unregulated changes in air pressure, malfunction of the eustachian tubes, or even congestion can all be the cause of those blockages.

How to Equalize The Pressure in Your Ears

Normally, any crackling is going to be caused by a pressure imbalance in your ears (particularly if you’re on a plane). And if that takes place, there are a number of ways to bring your inner ear and outer ear back into air-pressure-harmony:

  • Yawning: For the same reason that swallowing can be effective, try yawning. (If you’re having trouble getting sleepy, just think of someone else yawning and you’ll probably start to yawn yourself.)
  • Swallow: The muscles that activate when you swallow will force your eustachian tubes to open, neutralizing the pressure. This also sheds light on the accepted advice to chew gum on a plane; the swallowing is what equalizes the ear and chewing causes you to swallow.
  • Valsalva Maneuver: If you’re still having difficulty, try this: after pinching your nose and shutting your mouth, try blowing out without letting any air get out. Theoretically, the pressure should be neutralized when the air you try to blow out travels over your eustachian tubes.
  • Frenzel Maneuver: If nothing else is effective, try this. With your mouth shut and your nose pinched, try making “k” noises with your tongue. Clicking may also work.
  • Toynbee Maneuver: This is actually 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.

Medications And Devices

There are devices and medications that are made to manage ear pressure if none of these maneuvers help. The cause of your barotrauma and it’s severity will determine if these medications or techniques are right for you.

Sometimes that might mean special earplugs. In other circumstances, that might mean a nasal decongestant. It all depends on your scenario.

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 come and see us. Because loss of hearing can begin this way.


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