Hearing Health Blog

Man making his ears pop on an airplane.

Have you ever been on an airplane and you start to have issues with ear pressure? Where your ears suddenly feel plugged? Maybe someone you know suggested you try chewing gum. And while that sometimes works, I bet you don’t know why. If your ears feel plugged, here are some tricks to make your ears pop.

Your Ears And Pressure

Turns out, your ears are pretty good at regulating air pressure. Owing 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.

Irregularities in air pressure can cause issues in situations where your Eustachian tubes are having trouble adjusting. If you’re sick, for example, or there is a lot of fluid accumulation behind your ears, you might begin suffering from something known as barotrauma, an unpleasant and sometimes painful sensation in the ears caused by pressure differential. This is the same situation you feel in small amounts when flying or driving around really tall mountains.

Most of the time, you won’t recognize changes in pressure. 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 Originating From?

You might become curious what’s causing that crackling because it’s not typical in day to day situations. The crackling noise is commonly compared to the sound of “Rice Krispies”. Normally, air moving around blockages of the eustachian tubes is the cause of this crackling. The cause of those obstructions can range from congestion to Eustachian tube malfunction to unregulated changes in air pressure.

How to Equalize The Pressure in Your Ears

Most commonly, any crackling is going to be caused by a pressure imbalance in your ears (especially if you’re flying). In that situation, you can try the following technique to neutralize ear pressure:

  • Yawn: Try yawning, it works for the same reason that swallowing does. (If you’re having difficulty forcing a yawn, just think about somebody else yawning and you’ll likely catch a yawn yourself.)
  • Frenzel Maneuver: Okay, try this maneuver. Pinch your nose, close your mouth, and make “k” sounds with your tongue. Clicking may also help.
  • Valsalva Maneuver: If you’re still having difficulty, 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). Theoretically, the pressure should be neutralized when the air you try to blow out passes over your eustachian tubes.
  • Toynbee Maneuver: This is actually just swallowing in an elaborate way. Pinch your nose (so that your nostrils are closed), shut your mouth, and swallow. Sometimes this is somewhat easier with water in your mouth (because it forces you to keep your mouth closed).
  • Try Swallowing: The muscles that trigger when swallowing will force your eustachian tubes to open, equalizing the pressure. This, incidentally, is also the reason why you’re told to chew gum on an airplane; the chewing makes you swallow, and swallowing is what forces the ears to equalize.

Devices And Medications

There are medications and devices that are made to address ear pressure if none of these maneuvers work. The cause of your barotrauma and it’s intensity will determine if these medications or techniques are right for you.

In some cases that might mean special earplugs. Nasal decongestants will be appropriate in other situations. It all depends on your situation.

What’s The Trick?

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

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

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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