Man making his ears pop on an airplane.

Have you ever been on a plane and you start to have issues with ear pressure? Where your ears suddenly feel plugged? Your neighbor may have suggested chewing gum. And you probably don’t even recognize why this is sometimes effective. Here are a few tricks for making your ears pop when they feel plugged.

Your Ears And Pressure

Your ears, as it turns out, do a very good job at regulating pressure. Owing to a handy little piece of physiology called Eustachian tubes, the pressure of the outside world is able to be regulated, adjusted, and equalized inside of your ears. Usually.

Irregularities in the pressure of the air 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 buildup in the back of your ears, you might start suffering from something called barotrauma, an uncomfortable and sometimes painful sensation in the ears caused by pressure difference. At higher altitudes, you feel a small amount of this exact condition.

The majority of the time, you won’t detect differences in pressure. But when those differences are sudden, or when your Eustachian tubes aren’t functioning properly, you can experience fullness, pain, and even crackling inside of your ears.

What is The Cause of That Crackling?

Hearing crackling inside of your ears is somewhat unusual in a day-to-day setting, so you might be justifiably curious where that comes from. The sound itself is commonly compared to a “Rice Krispies” type of sound. In most instances, 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

Usually, any crackling is going to be caused by a pressure difference in your ears (particularly if you’re flying). And if that happens, there are several ways to bring your inner ear and outer ear back into air-pressure-balance:

  • Frenzel Maneuver: Okay, try this maneuver. With your mouth closed and your nose pinched, try making “k” noises with your tongue. You can also try clicking to see if that works.
  • Swallow: The muscles that activate when you swallow will cause your eustachian tubes to open, equalizing the pressure. This, by the way, is also the reason why you’re told to chew gum on an airplane; the swallowing is what equalizes the ear and chewing makes you swallow.
  • Valsalva Maneuver: Try this if you’re still having difficulty: after you pinch your nose and shut 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.
  • Yawning: For the same reason that swallowing works, try yawning. (If you’re having trouble forcing a yawn, just think of someone else yawning and you’ll likely catch a yawn yourself.)
  • Toynbee Maneuver: This is actually just swallowing in a fancy way. Pinch your nose (so that your nostrils are closed), close your mouth, and swallow. If you take water in your mouth (which will help you keep your mouth closed) it may be helpful.

Devices And Medications

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

On occasion that might mean special earplugs. Nasal decongestants will be correct in other situations. It all depends on your situation.

What’s The Trick?

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

But you should make an appointment for a consultation if you can’t get rid of that feeling of obstruction in your ear. Because this can also be a symptom of hearing loss.

 

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