Ear Popping

What Is Ear Popping?

Sometimes painful and often annoying, significant problems with ear popping is experienced by many.  The problem occurs when there is a difference between the pressure inside your ear and outside.  The popping sensation you experience is the body’s way to alleviate that pressure by equalizing the pressure between the inner ear and your environment.  The Eustachian Tubes, which connect the ear to the back of the nose and upper throat are normally closed.  When you experience your ears popping, what you are actually experiencing is the Eustachian Tubes opening to equalize that pressure.  Moving your jaw in a certain way can open these tubes, as will swallowing or gargling with warm salt water.

The sensation of pressure and ear popping can be much more significant in high pressure or low pressure environments, such as when scuba diving or flying in an airplane. It is important for the body to be able to regulate this pressure effectively, especially when in one of those extreme pressure situations.  Many people recommend that you chew gum when flying in an airplane to help your ears pop.  Anyone who has ever flown in an airplane with a head cold has experienced the pain of pressure that is not alleviated by their ears popping.  Many manufactures claim that their special ear plugs will help reduce the symptoms of Eustachian Tube Dysfunction while flying in aircraft.  In fact, most aircraft crewmembers will not fly if they are experiencing a cold or congestion and many military physical exams can not be passed unless the examinee has the potential to make his/her ears pop.

Although ear popping is a necessary mechanism for relieving pressure, sometimes the ear popping sensation can become overwhelming and uncomfortable.  Sometimes it can affect concentration and disrupt sleep.  This is sometimes referred to as Eustachian Tube Dysfunction.  A rare condition, individuals afflicted with dysfunction of the Eustachian Tube has what is known as a “patulous” Eustachian Tube, or one that is always open.  Individuals with this problem experience chronic ear infections due to contamination entering the ear canal.  Balance problems, or vertigo can also indicate issues with the middle ear and may be accompanied by ear popping.  This can be caused by fluid retention in the inner ear due to problems with the Eustachian Tubes.

In the absence of other symptoms, chronic ear popping may be attributed to allergies.  This may show up in the teenage years, and sometimes the ear popping may be so dramatic and distracting that the individual fails to notice some of the other symptoms, such as clearing their throat a lot or snoring.  Inhaled allergens, such as dust, pollen, or dander can cause problems with the Eustachian Tubes, resulting in excessive ear popping.  Nonallergic reactions to respiratory irritants, such as cigarette smoke or exhaust fumes, can also trigger an inflammation of the Eustachian Tubes and chronic ear popping.

Tips on how to relieve ear pressure

When your ears won’t pop, there are several techniques that you can try to use to relieve the pressure.

  1. If flying, try taking a decongestant or an allergy tablet about 1 hour before final descent.
  2. Open your mouth wide and try to yawn or take a deep breath. Sometimes, this works well.
  3. Try taking several drinks of water.  This may cause your ears to pop and relieve the pressure.  If not, repeat several times or try one of the other listed methods.
  4. Chewing gum while driving in the mountains or flying has proven to be a great method of preventing pressure from building up in the first place.  However, if diving this is not advised because the chewing gum can fall out of your mouth and clog the air hose.  When diving, try swallowing repeatedly in your attempt to relieve pressure before trying any of the other techniques. 

These are just a few techniques that you can try; contact your family doctor if you can not relieve the pressure by popping your ears or if your ears pop as a chronic condition.