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Man making his ears pop on an airplane.

Ever have problems with your ears on a plane? Where your ears suddenly feel blocked? Maybe somebody you know suggested you try chewing gum. And while that sometimes works, you probably don’t know why. Here are a few strategies for popping your ears when they feel clogged.

Your Ears And Pressure

Your ears, as it so happens, do a very good job at controlling pressure. Owing to a useful little piece of anatomy called Eustachian tubes, the pressure on the interior of your ears is able to regulate, modify, and equalize to the pressure in the outside world. Usually.

Irregularities in the pressure of the air can cause problems in situations where your Eustachian tubes are not adjusting properly. There are instances when you could be suffering from an uncomfortable and sometimes painful affliction known as barotrauma which occurs when there is an accumulation of fluid at the back of the ears or when you’re sick. This is the same situation you experience in small amounts when flying or driving around particularly tall mountains.

You normally won’t even detect small pressure changes. But when those differences are sudden, or when your Eustachian tubes aren’t working properly, you can experience pressure, pain, and even crackling inside of your ears.

Where’s That Crackling Originating From?

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

Neutralizing Ear Pressure

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

  • Frenzel Maneuver: Okay, try this maneuver. Pinch your nose, close your mouth, and make “k” sounds with your tongue. You can also try clicking to see if that works.
  • Yawning: Try yawning, it works for the same reason that swallowing does. (If you’re having trouble forcing a yawn, just think about somebody else yawning and you’ll probably catch a yawn yourself.)
  • Toynbee Maneuver: This is actually just an elaborate way to swallow. Pinch your nose (so that your nostrils are closed), close your mouth, and swallow. Sometimes this is somewhat easier with water in your mouth (because it forces you to keep your mouth closed).
  • Valsalva Maneuver: If you’re still having trouble, try this: pinch your nose close your mouth, but rather than swallowing, try blowing out (don’t let any air escape if you can help it). In theory, 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 that are used to swallow are triggered. 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 causes the ears to equalize.

Devices And Medications

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

In some cases that may mean special earplugs. Nasal decongestants will be appropriate in other situations. Your scenario will dictate your remedy.

What’s The Trick?

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

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