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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 plugged? Maybe someone you know recommended you try chewing gum. And while that sometimes works, I bet you don’t know why. Here are a few tricks for popping your ears when they feel plugged.

Your Ears And Pressure

Your ears, as it turns out, do an extremely good job at controlling pressure. Owing to a useful little piece of anatomy called Eustachian tubes, the pressure inside of your ears is able to regulate, adjust, and equalize to the pressure in the outside world. Normally.

There are some instances when your Eustachian tubes might have difficulty adjusting, and irregularities in air pressure can cause problems. If you’re sick, for example, or there is a lot of fluid accumulation in the back of your ears, you might start suffering from something called barotrauma, an uncomfortable and sometimes painful sensation in the ears due to pressure differential. At higher altitudes, you feel a small amount of this exact condition.

You generally won’t even detect gradual pressure differences. But when those changes are rapid, or when your Eustachian tubes aren’t working 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 rather unusual in an everyday situation, so you might be understandably curious about the cause. The sound is commonly compared to a “Rice Krispies” style sound. Usually, air going around blockages of the eustachian tubes is the cause of this crackling. Unregulated changes in air pressure, malfunction of the eustachian tubes, or even congestion can all be the cause of those blockages.

Neutralizing Ear Pressure

Any crackling, particularly if you’re at high altitudes, will usually be caused by pressure imbalances. In that circumstance, you can try the following technique to equalize ear pressure:

  • Toynbee Maneuver: This is actually just an elaborate way of swallowing. With your mouth closed, pinch your nose and swallow. Sometimes this is somewhat easier with water in your mouth (because it makes you keep your mouth shut).
  • Yawn: Try yawning, it works for the same reason that swallowing does. (if you can’t yawn on command, try thinking about someone else yawning, that usually will work.)
  • Swallow: Pressure in the eustachian tubes will be neutralized when the muscles used to swallow are activated. This also sheds light on the accepted advice to chew gum on a plane; the swallowing is what equalizes the ear and chewing makes you swallow.
  • Valsalva Maneuver: Try this if you’re still having trouble: after pinching your nose and shutting your mouth, try blowing out without letting any air get out. Theoretically, the air you try to blow out should move through your eustachian tubes and neutralize the pressure.
  • Frenzel Maneuver: If nothing else works, try this. With your mouth closed and your nose pinched, try making “k” noises with your tongue. Clicking may also work.

Medications And Devices

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

Special earplugs will work in some situations. In other cases, that could mean a nasal decongestant. It all depends on your scenario.

What’s The Trick?

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

But you should schedule an appointment for a consultation if you can’t shake that feeling of blockage in your ear. Because this can also be a symptom of loss of hearing.

 

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