If you feel like your ears are plugged, or pressure is building inside the ear, then popping the ear can bring immediate relief. But, should you be concerned if you hear a loud “popping” sound? This noise is an indication that the pressure has changed in your ear.
Anatomy of the Ear
Three sections are located within the ear: the inner ear, middle ear, and outer ear. When you experience your ears popping, this sensation is happening within the middle ear, which is the area where the eardrum is located.
This space is airtight most of the time, although air can pass through the Eustachian tube that links the inner ear to the back section of the throat. When you feel an ear-popping sensation, then it means that the Eustachian tube is opening and closing.
Changes in Altitude and Ear Pressure
There can be a pressure difference between the outside air and the environment within your middle ear space. Most of the time, the pressure in the middle ear is similar to the pressure outside of the ear. The difference is small enough that you don’t experience any discomfort or sensations.
But, when you increase in altitude (going up a mountain in the car or riding in an airplane), then the outside air pressure decreases… but the middle ear pressure remains the same. The changes cause the sealed air in the middle ear to expand.
As a result, pressure is placed on the eardrum. You will feel some discomfort and the desire to “pop” your ears. Some people find it harder to hear since the eardrum pressure affects the way sound is transmitted through the ears. This sensation often causes you to feel like your ears are plugged.
In the Air and Under Water
Each person is unique, and there isn’t a specific altitude or pressure that will cause your ears to pop. It is common to need to “pop” your ears several times on a quick ascent (such as an airplane takeoff) because of the increasing pressure changes. On the other hand, a slow walk up the hill might not cause any noticeable changes to your ear pressure. This gradual ascent may cause your ears to equalize without you noticing the small adjustments.
This same phenomenon can happen underwater, which is why it is important for scuba divers to ascend and descend slowly. Ear equalization needs to happen throughout the dive. Some people feel pain or uncomfortable pressure by going down just a few feet, such as diving to the bottom of a swimming pool.
It doesn’t matter whether you are in the air or the water; it can be helpful to learn how to equalize your ears when you are feeling the pressure. Not only do you feel the need to pop your ears during the ascent, but the ears also need to readjust in the decent.
Difficulty Popping Your Ears
Sometimes, you might have problems popping your ears because the Eustachian tubes are blocked. For example, if mucus has formed from an ear infection or head cold, then fluid can affect the middle ear. As a result, it can make it hard to equalize your ears when needed.
The most common symptom with this condition is an earache and pressure, which can be uncomfortable. Even minor changes in altitude can put pressure on the eardrum, resulting in pain. Here are some of the most common reasons why the ears won’t pop:
· Fluid: If fluid is present within the ear, then the thickened mucus can block the tubes and prevent drainage into the back of the throat.
· Surrounding Structures: Sometimes, the tonsils, sinuses, or adenoids swell, causing fluid to be retained in the ear.
· Congestion: Thickened mucus from a head cold, sinus infection or allergies can cause the eustachian tubes to be blocked
· Excessive Ear Wax: The buildup of too much earwax compressed against the eardrum can have an impact on the ability to pop the ears
· Other Health Conditions: Certain health conditions can affect the ear’s ability to equalize, such as a Patulous Eustachian Tube, sinusitis, tonsillitis, or nasal polyps.
It is important to be aware and proactive in keeping your Eustachian tubes open so the ears can equalize. If the middle ear stays blocked, then serious side effects can happen, such as vertigo, extreme pain, a burst eardrum, or even hearing loss.
How to Pop Your Ears Safely
In most situations, small exercises can be done to release the pressure in your ears. Try popping your ears by:
· Chewing gum
· Sucking on hard candy
· Using over-the-counter decongestant to reduce fluid in the ear
· Valsalva maneuver: Shut the mouth and pinch the nose, then try to forcefully breath out
· Hold a warm compress against the ear to eliminate congestion
If you know that you are prone to ear pain with pressure changes, then it is smart to be prepared with strategies to help your ears. For example, chew on gum during the takeoff and landing of your flight. Giving a baby a pacifier or bottle on the plane can be beneficial to help the child pop their ears and adjust to the ascent and descent.
Popping your ears is generally safe, but you should be gentle with your ears. If you notice that the symptoms worsen, then consult with a doctor instead of trying to pop your ears at home.
Medical Treatment for Blocked Ears
Difficulty popping your ears could be a symptom of an underlying problem. If this issue is chronic and it is causing pain, then you should schedule an appointment with an ENT for diagnosis and treatment. Common treatments include:
· Decongestants to thin the mucus and help the ears drain
· Surgical removal of the surrounding tissue that is blocking drainage, such as the tonsils or adenoids
· Inserting ear tubes to help the ears drain and equalize
· Earwax removal through irrigation or special eardrops used in the doctor’s office
When other conditions are affecting the way the ears equalize, then an ENT can provide treatment recommendations that will control the symptoms through medication or surgery.
Schedule an Appointment with an ENT
The best thing you can do is talk to an ENT if you are experiencing issues with your ears popping or feeling plugged. Our team is here to assist with diagnosis and treatment, helping you maintain healthy ears.
We offer ENT services in the Collin County and Dallas areas. Contact us at Collin County Ear, Nose, and Throat to learn more about available services. You can schedule an exam at one of our convenient offices, located in Frisco or Plano, TX: (972) 596-4005