Hearing Health Blog

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 out of the blue, your ears seem to be blocked? Someone you know probably recommended chewing gum. And while that works sometimes, you probably don’t recognize why. Here are a few tricks for popping your ears when they feel plugged.

Pressure And Your Ears

Your ears, come to find out, do an extremely good job at controlling pressure. Thanks to a beneficial little piece of physiology 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 problems in circumstances where your Eustachian tubes are having trouble adjusting. If you’re sick, for example, or there is a lot of fluid buildup behind your ears, you might start dealing with something known as barotrauma, an unpleasant and often painful feeling in the ears due to pressure difference. At higher altitudes, you feel a small amount of this exact situation.

Most of the time, you won’t notice differences in pressure. But when those changes are rapid, or when your Eustachian tubes aren’t functioning properly, you can feel pressure, pain, and even crackling inside of your ears.

What is The Cause of That Crackling?

Hearing crackling in your ears is rather unusual in an everyday setting, so you may be justifiably curious about the cause. The crackling sound is commonly compared to the sound of “Rice Krispies”. In many instances, what you’re hearing is air getting around blockages or obstacles in your eustachian tubes. The cause of those blockages can range from congestion to Eustachian tube malfunction to unregulated changes in air pressure.

Equalizing Ear Pressure

Any crackling, particularly if you’re at high altitudes, will typically be caused by pressure imbalances. And if that occurs, there are a number of ways to bring your inner ear and outer ear back into air-pressure-balance:

  • Frenzel Maneuver: Okay, try this tactic. With your mouth shut and your nose pinched, try making “k” sounds with your tongue. You can also try clicking to see if that works.
  • 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 somewhat easier with water in your mouth (because it forces you to keep your mouth closed).
  • Swallow: The muscles that activate when swallowing will cause your eustachian tubes to open, neutralizing the pressure. This also sheds light on the common advice to chew gum on a plane; the swallowing is what equalizes the ear and chewing makes you swallow.
  • Yawning: For the same reason that swallowing can be effective, try yawning. (if you can’t yawn whenever you want, try thinking about someone else yawning, that will usually work.)
  • Valsalva Maneuver: If you’re still having problems, try this: pinch your nose shut your mouth, but instead of swallowing, try blowing out (don’t let any air get out if you can help it). In theory, the air you try to blow out should move through your eustachian tubes and equalize the pressure.

Medications And Devices

There are devices and medications that are designed to deal with ear pressure if none of these maneuvers help. The cause of your barotrauma and it’s intensity will determine if these techniques or medications are correct for you.

At times that might mean special earplugs. Nasal decongestants will be correct in other cases. It all depends on your scenario.

What’s The Trick?

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

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


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