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Man making his ears pop on an airplane.

Ever have troubles with your ears on a plane? Where your ears suddenly feel blocked? Maybe someone you know recommended you try chewing gum. And while that sometimes works, I bet you don’t recognize why. Here are a few tips for popping your ears when they feel clogged.

Pressure And Your Ears

Turns out, your ears are rather good at regulating air pressure. Thanks to a handy little piece of physiology called Eustachian tubes, the pressure on the interior of your ears is able to regulate, adjust, and equalize to the pressure in the outside world. Normally.

Inequalities in air pressure can cause problems in circumstances where your Eustachian tubes are not adjusting properly. 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 uncomfortable and often painful feeling of the ears due to pressure difference. This is the same thing you experience in small amounts when flying or driving in really tall mountains.

The majority of the time, you won’t recognize differences in pressure. But when those changes are sudden, or when your Eustachian tubes aren’t functioning properly, you can feel fullness, pain, and even crackling in your ears.

Where’s That Crackling Coming From?

You may become curious where that crackling is coming from because it’s not prevalent in day to day circumstances. The sound is often compared to a “Rice Krispies” type of noise. 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 blockages.

How to Equalize The Pressure in Your Ears

Typically, any crackling will be caused by a pressure difference in your ears (especially if you’re on a plane). In that scenario, you can use the following technique to equalize ear pressure:

  • Yawn: For the same reason that swallowing can be effective, try yawning. (If you’re having difficulty forcing a yawn, just think of somebody else yawning and you’ll probably catch a yawn yourself.)
  • Frenzel Maneuver: Okay, try this tactic. With your mouth shut and your nose pinched, try making “k” sounds with your tongue. Clicking may also work.
  • Valsalva Maneuver: If you’re still having problems, try this: pinch your nose shut your mouth, but instead of swallowing, try blowing out (don’t let any air escape if you can help it). Theoretically, the pressure should be neutralized when the air you try to blow out passes over your eustachian tubes.
  • Swallow: The muscles that activate when swallowing will force your eustachian tubes to open, neutralizing the pressure. This also explains the common advice to chew gum on a plane; the swallowing is what equalizes the ear and chewing causes you to swallow.
  • Toynbee Maneuver: This is actually just swallowing in an elaborate way. 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.

Devices And Medications

If using these maneuvers doesn’t work, there are medications and devices that are specifically produced to help you manage the pressure in your ears. The cause of your barotrauma and it’s intensity will establish if these techniques or medications are right for you.

Special earplugs will work in some cases. In other instances, that might mean a nasal decongestant. Your scenario will dictate your response.

What’s The Trick?

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

But you should make an appointment for a consultation if you can’t get rid of that feeling of blockage in your ear. Because this can also be a sign of loss of hearing.


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