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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 pressure in your ears? Where your ears suddenly feel plugged? Maybe somebody you know suggested you try chewing gum. And while that works sometimes, I bet you don’t know why. Here are a few tips for popping your ears when they feel clogged.

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 environment is able to be regulated, adjusted, and equalized inside of your ears. Usually.

Inequalities in air pressure can cause issues in situations where your Eustachian tubes are not adjusting properly. If you’re sick, for example, or there is a lot of fluid buildup behind your ears, you may start dealing with something known as barotrauma, an unpleasant and sometimes painful sensation of the ears due to pressure difference. At higher altitudes, you experience a small amount of this exact condition.

You usually won’t even notice small pressure differences. But when those changes are rapid, or when your Eustachian tubes aren’t functioning properly, you can experience fullness, pain, and even crackling in your ears.

What is The Cause of That Crackling?

You might become curious where that crackling is coming from because it’s not common in day to day situations. The crackling sound is often 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. Unregulated changes in air pressure, malfunction of the eustachian tubes, or even congestion can all be the reason for those blockages.

How to Neutralize The Pressure in Your Ears

Any crackling, especially if you’re at high altitudes, will typically be caused by pressure imbalances. And if that takes place, there are a few ways to bring your inner ear and outer ear back into air-pressure-harmony:

  • Frenzel Maneuver: If nothing else works, try this. With your mouth shut and your nose pinched, try making “k” noises with your tongue. You can also try clicking to see if that helps.
  • Valsalva Maneuver: If you’re still having trouble, try this: pinch your nose close 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 travels over your eustachian tubes.
  • Swallow: Pressure in the eustachian tubes will be equalized when the muscles used to swallow are activated. This, by the way, is also why you’re told to chew gum when flying; the swallowing is what equalizes the ear and chewing causes you to swallow.
  • Toynbee Maneuver: This is really just an elaborate way of swallowing. Pinch your nose (so that your nostrils are closed), shut your mouth, and swallow. If you take water in your mouth (which will help you keep your mouth closed) it could be helpful.
  • 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 normally work.)

Medications And Devices

If self-administering these maneuvers doesn’t work, there are devices and medications that are specifically made to help you handle the ear pressure. Whether these techniques or medications are right for you will depend on the underlying cause of your barotrauma, and also the extent of your symptoms.

Special earplugs will work in some situations. Nasal decongestants will be appropriate in other cases. Your scenario will dictate your response.

What’s The Trick?

The real key is figuring out what works for you, and your eustachian tubes.

But you should make an appointment to see us if you can’t get rid of that feeling of obstruction in your ear. Because loss of hearing can begin this way.