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Man making his ears pop on an airplane.

Ever have difficulties with your ears on an airplane? Where your ears suddenly feel clogged? Maybe someone you know recommended you try chewing gum. And you probably don’t even know why this works sometimes. Here are a few tips for popping your ears when they feel blocked.

Your Ears And Pressure

Turns out, your ears are rather wonderful at controlling air pressure. Thanks 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 their environment. Usually.

There are some circumstances when your Eustachian tubes might have problems adjusting, and inequalities in air pressure can cause problems. If you’re ill, for example, or there is a lot of fluid buildup behind your ears, you may begin suffering from something called barotrauma, an unpleasant and often painful sensation of the ears caused by pressure differential. This is the same thing you experience in small amounts when flying or driving around particularly tall mountains.

You usually won’t even notice small pressure changes. But when those changes are sudden, or when your Eustachian tubes aren’t functioning quite right, you can feel fullness, pain, and even crackling inside of your ears.

Where’s That Crackling Coming From?

You might become curious what’s causing that crackling since 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 getting around obstructions or obstacles in your eustachian tubes. Unregulated changes in air pressure, failure of the eustachian tubes, or even congestion can all be the reason for those obstructions.

Equalizing Ear Pressure

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

  • Frenzel Maneuver: If nothing else works, try this. With your mouth shut and your nose pinched, try making “k” sounds with your tongue. Clicking may also help.
  • 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.)
  • Toynbee Maneuver: This is actually just an elaborate way of swallowing. Pinch your nose (so that your nostrils are closed), close your mouth, and swallow. If you take a mouth full of water (which will help you keep your mouth closed) it could be helpful.
  • Valsalva Maneuver: Try this if you’re still having problems: pinch your nose close your mouth, but rather than swallowing, try blowing out (don’t let any air get out if you can help it). Theoretically, the air you try to blow out should pass through your eustachian tubes and neutralize the pressure.
  • Try Swallowing: Pressure in the eustachian tubes will be neutralized when the muscles used to swallow are activated. This, incidentally, is also the reason why you’re told to chew gum when flying; the swallowing is what equalizes the ear and chewing causes you to swallow.

Devices And Medications

There are medications and devices that are made to manage ear pressure if none of these maneuvers help. The cause of your barotrauma and it’s severity will determine if these medications or techniques are appropriate for you.

In some cases that might mean special earplugs. In other instances, that might mean a nasal decongestant. It all depends on your scenario.

What’s The Trick?

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

But you should make an appointment for a consultation 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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