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Man making his ears pop on an airplane.

Ever have troubles with your ears on an airplane? Where all of a sudden, your ears seem to be plugged? Your neighbor may have recommended chewing gum. And you probably don’t even recognize why this is sometimes effective. Here are a few strategies for popping your ears when they feel plugged.

Your Ears And Pressure

Your ears, as it turns out, do an extremely good job at regulating pressure. Thanks to a beneficial little piece of anatomy called Eustachian tubes, the pressure inside of your ears is able to regulate, modify, and equalize to the pressure in their environment. Usually.

There are some circumstances when your Eustachian tubes may have trouble adjusting, and irregularities in air pressure can cause issues. If you’re ill, for example, or there is a lot of fluid accumulation in the back of your ears, you might start suffering from something called barotrauma, an uncomfortable and often painful sensation of the ears due to pressure differential. At higher altitudes, you feel a small amount of this exact condition.

Most of the time, you won’t recognize changes in pressure. But you can experience pressure, pain, and crackling if your Eustachian tubes aren’t functioning efficiently or if the pressure differences are sudden.

What is The Cause of That Crackling?

Hearing crackling in your ears is somewhat uncommon in an everyday situation, so you might be understandably curious about the cause. The crackling noise is commonly compared to the sound of “Rice Krispies”. Normally, air moving around obstructions of the eustachian tubes is the cause of this crackling. The cause of those obstructions can range from congestion to Eustachian tube failure to unregulated changes in air pressure.

How to Neutralize The Pressure in Your Ears

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

  • Valsalva Maneuver: Try this if you’re still having difficulty: pinch your nose shut your mouth, but rather than swallowing, try blowing out (don’t let any air escape if you can help it). Theoretically, the air you try to blow out should pass through your eustachian tubes and neutralize the pressure.
  • Yawning: Try yawning, it works for the same reason that swallowing does. (if you can’t yawn whenever you want, try thinking about someone else yawning, that will usually work.)
  • Toynbee Maneuver: This is really just swallowing in a fancy way. With your mouth shut, pinch your nose and swallow. Often this is a bit simpler with water in your mouth (because it makes you keep your mouth closed).
  • Try Swallowing: Pressure in the eustachian tubes will be neutralized when the muscles used to swallow are triggered. This, by the way, is also the reason why you’re told to chew gum on an airplane; the swallowing is what equalizes the ear and chewing makes you swallow.
  • Frenzel Maneuver: Okay, try this tactic. Pinch your nose, shut your mouth, and make “k” sounds with your tongue. Clicking may also help.

Medications And Devices

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

Special earplugs will do the job in some cases. Nasal decongestants will be appropriate in other situations. It all depends on your situation.

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 symptom of hearing loss.


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