Illini Hearing - Champaign and Mahomet, IL

Man making his ears pop on an airplane.

Have you ever been on an airplane and you start to have problems with pressure in your ears? Where your ears suddenly feel plugged? Possibly someone you know recommended you try chewing gum. And you probably don’t even know why this is sometimes effective. Here are a few tricks for popping your ears when they feel blocked.

Your Ears And Pressure

Turns out, your ears are pretty good at regulating air pressure. Thanks to a useful 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. Normally.

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

The majority of the time, you won’t detect changes in pressure. But you can feel pressure, pain, and crackling if your Eustachian tubes aren’t working properly or if the pressure changes are abrupt.

Where’s That Crackling Coming From?

You may become curious where that crackling is coming from because it’s not typical in day to day situations. The crackling noise is often compared to the sound of “Rice Krispies”. In many cases, what you’re hearing is air moving around blockages or obstacles in your eustachian tubes. Unregulated changes in air pressure, failure of the eustachian tubes, or even congestion can all be the cause of those obstructions.

Equalizing 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 neutralize ear pressure:

  • Valsalva Maneuver: Try this if you’re still having difficulty: after pinching your nose and shutting your mouth, try blowing out without allowing any air escape. Theoretically, the pressure should be neutralized when the air you try to blow out passes over your eustachian tubes.
  • Yawn: For the same reason that swallowing can be effective, try yawning. (if you can’t yawn on command, try imagining someone else yawning, that will usually work.)
  • Frenzel Maneuver: Okay, try this tactic. Pinch your nose, shut your mouth, and make “k” noises with your tongue. Clicking may also work.
  • Swallow: The muscles that activate when swallowing will force your eustachian tubes to open, equalizing the pressure. This also sheds light on the common advice to chew gum on a plane; the chewing causes you to swallow, and swallowing is what causes the ears to equalize.
  • Toynbee Maneuver: This is really just swallowing in an elaborate way. With your mouth closed, pinch your nose and swallow. If you take water in your mouth (which will help you keep your mouth closed) it might help.

Devices And Medications

There are devices and medications that are designed to manage 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.

Special earplugs will work in some situations. Nasal decongestants will be appropriate in other situations. Your situation will dictate your remedy.

What’s The Trick?

Finding what works best for you and your eustachian tubes is the real secret.

But you should schedule an appointment to see us if you can’t shake that feeling of obstruction in your ear. Because this can also be a symptom of loss of hearing.


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The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.
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