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Man making his ears pop on an airplane.

Have you ever been on a plane and you start to have problems with ear pressure? Where your ears suddenly feel plugged? Your neighbor may have recommended chewing gum. And you probably don’t even know why this works sometimes. Here are a few tricks for popping your ears when they feel clogged.

Pressure And Your Ears

Turns out, your ears are pretty wonderful at controlling air pressure. Thanks to a useful little piece of physiology called Eustachian tubes, the pressure inside of your ears is able to regulate, modify, and equalize to the pressure in the outside world. Usually.

Irregularities in air pressure can cause problems in circumstances where your Eustachian tubes are not adjusting properly. If you’re ill, for example, or there is a lot of fluid accumulation in the back of your ears, you could start suffering from something called barotrauma, an uncomfortable and sometimes painful sensation in the ears caused by pressure difference. This is the same situation you experience in small amounts when flying or driving around really tall mountains.

You generally won’t even detect small pressure differences. But when those differences are sudden, or when your Eustachian tubes aren’t functioning properly, you can feel pressure, pain, and even crackling inside of your ears.

Where’s That Crackling Originating From?

You may become curious what’s causing that crackling since it’s not prevalent in everyday circumstances. The crackling sound is often compared to the sound of “Rice Krispies”. In many cases, what you’re hearing is air getting around obstructions or obstacles in your eustachian tubes. The cause of those obstructions can range from congestion to Eustachian tube failure to unregulated changes in air pressure.

Neutralizing Ear Pressure

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

  • Frenzel Maneuver: If nothing else works, try this. Pinch your nose, close your mouth, and make “k” noises with your tongue. You can also try clicking to see if that helps.
  • Yawning: For the same reason that swallowing works, try yawning. (if you can’t yawn whenever you want, try imagining someone else yawning, that will normally work.)
  • Toynbee Maneuver: This is really just swallowing in a fancy way. With your mouth closed, pinch your nose and swallow. Often this is somewhat simpler with water in your mouth (because it makes you keep your mouth closed).
  • Try Swallowing: Pressure in the eustachian tubes will be neutralized when the muscles used to swallow are triggered. This, by the way, is also why you’re told to chew gum on an airplane; the swallowing is what equalizes the ear and chewing causes you to swallow.
  • Valsalva Maneuver: Try this if you’re still having difficulty: pinch your nose shut your mouth, but rather than swallowing, try blowing out (don’t let any air get out if you can help it). Theoretically, the pressure should be equalized when the air you try to blow out passes over your eustachian tubes.

Medications And Devices

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

Sometimes that may mean special earplugs. In other instances, that might mean a nasal decongestant. Your scenario will determine your response.

What’s The Trick?

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

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 loss of hearing.

 

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