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Man making his ears pop on an airplane.

Have you ever been on a plane and you start to have issues with pressure in your ears? Where suddenly, your ears seem to be plugged? Someone you know may have suggested chewing gum. And while that sometimes works, you probably don’t recognize why. Here are a few tricks for popping your ears when they feel blocked.

Your Ears And Pressure

Turns out, your ears are rather good at controlling air pressure. Owing to a handy little piece of anatomy called Eustachian tubes, the pressure of the environment is able to be regulated, adjusted, and equalized inside of your ears. Usually.

There are some instances when your Eustachian tubes may have difficulty adjusting, and inequalities in the pressure of the air can cause problems. If you’re ill, for example, or there is a lot of fluid buildup behind your ears, you may start suffering from something called 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 around particularly tall mountains.

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

What is The Source of That Crackling?

Hearing crackling inside of your ears is somewhat uncommon in a day-to-day situation, so you might be understandably curious where that comes from. The crackling noise is frequently compared to the sound of “Rice Krispies”. Normally, air moving around obstructions of the eustachian tubes is the cause of this crackling. Unregulated changes in air pressure, malfunction of the eustachian tubes, or even congestion can all be the reason for those obstructions.

How to Neutralize The Pressure in Your Ears

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

  • Frenzel Maneuver: Okay, try this tactic. With your mouth shut and your nose pinched, try making “k” noises with your tongue. You can also try clicking to see if that works.
  • Swallow: The muscles that activate when you swallow will cause your eustachian tubes to open, neutralizing the pressure. This also explains the accepted advice to chew gum on a plane; the swallowing is what equalizes the ear and chewing makes you swallow.
  • Toynbee Maneuver: This is actually just swallowing in a fancy way. Pinch your nose (so that your nostrils are closed), shut your mouth, and swallow. Often this is a bit simpler with water in your mouth (because it makes you keep your mouth closed).
  • 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 get out if you can help it). In theory, the air you try to blow out should pass through your eustachian tubes and neutralize the pressure.
  • Yawning: For the same reason that swallowing can be effective, try yawning. (If you’re having difficulty getting sleepy, just think about someone else yawning and you’ll likely start to yawn yourself.)

Devices And Medications

There are medications and devices that are made to manage ear pressure if none of these maneuvers help. Whether these techniques or medications are the right choice for you will depend on the underlying cause of your barotrauma, as well as the extent of your symptoms.

Special earplugs will do the job in some cases. Nasal decongestants will be appropriate in other situations. Your situation will dictate your response.

What’s The Trick?

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

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


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