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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 suddenly, your ears seem to be clogged? Possibly someone you know suggested you try chewing gum. And you probably don’t even know why this is sometimes effective. If your ears feel plugged, here are a few tips to pop your ears.

Your Ears And Pressure

Turns out, your ears are pretty wonderful at regulating air pressure. Owing to a handy 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.

There are some circumstances when your Eustachian tubes might have difficulty adjusting, and irregularities in the pressure of the air can cause problems. If you’re ill, for example, or there is a lot of fluid buildup behind your ears, you could start dealing with something known as barotrauma, an unpleasant and often painful feeling of the ears caused by pressure differential. At higher altitudes, you experience a small amount of this exact situation.

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

What is The Cause of That Crackling?

Hearing crackling in your ears is somewhat uncommon in an everyday situation, so you might be understandably curious about the cause. The sound itself is commonly compared to a “Rice Krispies” style sound. Normally, air going around blockages of the eustachian tubes is the cause of this crackling. Unregulated changes in air pressure, failure of the eustachian tubes, or even congestion can all be the cause of those blockages.

Equalizing Ear Pressure

Normally, any crackling will be caused by a pressure difference in your ears (particularly if you’re on a plane). And if that takes place, 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 shut and your nose pinched, try making “k” sounds with your tongue. Clicking may also help.
  • Yawning: For the same reason that swallowing can be effective, try yawning. (if you can’t yawn on command, try thinking about someone else yawning, that will normally work.)
  • Valsalva Maneuver: Try this if you’re still having trouble: pinch your nose close your mouth, but rather than swallowing, try blowing out (don’t let any air escape if you can help it). In theory, the air you try to blow out should move through your eustachian tubes and equalize the pressure.
  • Toynbee Maneuver: This is really just swallowing in a fancy way. Pinch your nose (so that your nostrils are closed), close your mouth, and swallow. Sometimes this is a bit simpler with a mouthful of water (because it forces you to keep your mouth closed).
  • Swallow: Pressure in the eustachian tubes will be neutralized when the muscles that are used to swallow are activated. This, by the way, is also the reason why you’re told to chew gum when flying; the swallowing is what equalizes the ear and chewing makes you swallow.

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 the right choice for you will depend on the root cause of your barotrauma, and also the degree of your symptoms.

On occasion that could mean special earplugs. In other cases, that may mean a nasal decongestant. It all depends on your situation.

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 sensation 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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