Why Do Your Ears Pop? 9 Ways to Pop Your Ears Safely
Published: October 14, 2021
Updated: March 23, 2023
While traveling via airplane or train, you may have found yourself wondering why your ears pop. Fortunately, if you feel like your ears are full of pressure, then popping them can provide immediate relief.
The ear is composed of three sections: the inner ear, middle ear, and outer ear. Typically, the pressure in the middle ear is similar to the pressure outside of the ear. When there are changes in the amount of pressure on the eardrum, however, you will feel some discomfort and the desire to “pop” your ears. Because of this discomfort, you may search for ways to pop your ears.
Why Do Your Ears Pop? – The Eustachian Tube and Its Function
To understand why our ears pop, we need to learn the purpose of the Eustachian tube. The Eustachian tube is a tube that connects the middle ear to behind the nose (nasopharynx). The Eustachian tube is important for sound transmission and keeps the middle ear healthy. It helps to protect the middle ear from pathogens (organisms that cause disease), it helps to make the pressure equal in the middle ear and nasopharynx, and also helps with drainage of the middle ear. Certain movements like yawning and swallowing will cause the muscles around the Eustachian tube to contract, causing it to open to some air. This causes equalization of pressure between the middle ear and the atmospheric pressure which then creates a popping sound in the ear. The popping sound is caused by air entering the middle ear.
If the Eustachian tube does not open properly, it can cause distorted hearing, tinnitus, and a blocked feeling. Different environments can cause your ear to pop; for example, traveling via airplane can cause ear popping due to the sudden pressure change in the environment. The altitude differences have varying pressures. This is common among travelers, especially babies, as their ears are not yet fully developed. It usually causes feelings of pain, blocked ears, distorted hearing, tinnitus, and discomfort. Your ear may pop to adjust to the pressure difference caused by differences in altitude.
Traveling via airplane exposes one to different barometric pressure, which is the pressure of air in the atmosphere or on earth. As the airplane rises, the pressure inside the airplane decreases, and positive pressure starts to build up in the middle ear. In a normal functioning Eustachian tube, the air in the middle ear would efficiently escape through the Eustachian tube. This will result in the pressure in the middle ear to be similar to the pressure inside the airplane. When the airplane starts to descend, the air pressure inside the airplane begins to increase. This causes a build-up of negative pressure in the middle ear. This often makes it difficult for the Eustachian tube to open. Not all adults would experience this problem while traveling; those that have underlying conditions that affect the Eustachian tube functioning are more likely to experience this problem.
If your ears are clogged and you hear a pop sound, your Eustachian tube is opened and trying to bring about a balance. If the Eustachian tube is unable to open, this can prevent the equalization of pressure in your middle ear and prevent fluid of the middle ear from draining. Popping your ears helps to alleviate the difference in pressure in your middle ear and your nasopharynx, thus reducing discomfort. When your ears pop, this will improve your hearing because there is no longer negative air pressure or fluid in the middle ear, which can affect the transmission of sound to your inner ear.
9 Safe Ways to Pop Your Ears
1. Valsalva Maneuver
To perform this maneuver, take a deep breath and hold your nose closed. Blow through your nose gently. This method forces air through the Eustachian tube into the middle ear. Do this method gently, as there are risks involved, such as perforating the tympanic membrane (eardrum).
Alternatively, you can try blowing up balloons. This method requires the same pressure needed to force air into the middle ear.
Yawning is one of the most commonly known ways to pop your ears. It helps to open the Eustachian tube.
Swallowing contracts the muscles around the Eustachian tube, helping it open. Try drinking something when your ears feel clogged.
4. Toynbee maneuver
This maneuver is a simple but effective way to pop your ears. Pinch your nose closed, close your mouth, and try swallowing.
5. Fenzel maneuver
Similar to the Toynbee maneuver, this method involves pinching the nose close and clicking your tongue or making the “K” sound.
It should be noted that babies would not be able to do this or the other maneuvers listed. Instead, when flying, try feeding your baby when the airplane starts to descend. This will help the Eustachian tube to open by facilitating the swallowing motion.
6. Chewing gum
Chewing gum helps to produce saliva, which stimulates swallowing and chewing helps to open the Eustachian tube. One common way to pop your ears while flying is to chew gum while taking off and landing.
- Warm/heat devices: Applying a heat pad or heat bag to the ear can help reduce congestion and help open the Eustachian tube.
- Earplugs: There are earplugs that claim to help control the airflow into the ear.
- Otovents: Otovents are autoinflation devices used to help open the Eustachian tube. This is helpful for adults and children who cannot use the maneuvers.
- Ear poppers: This is a device that helps balance the pressure in the middle ear. Insert the nozzle into your nose, and the device emits safe amounts of air into the nose.
Treating nasal allergies can act as a way to pop your ears, as it helps alleviate the swelling of the Eustachian tube lining. This can be done by taking allergy shots.
- Decongestants: These help constrict blood vessels and open the Eustachian tube.
- Intranasal steroid: These help to alleviate inflammation of the nasal lining.
- Antihistamines: Helps with inflammation caused by allergens.
9. Surgical Treatment
Pressure equalization tubes may be required in severe cases. A tube is inserted after a small cut is made to the eardrum under topical anesthetic. This tube helps to ventilate the middle ear for up to 6 to 12 months. During this time, the Eustachian tube usually heals. The ear pushes the tube out when the eardrum is healed. Some medication would require a prescription, and surgical treatments must be consulted with the relevant health care professionals such as ear, nose, and throat doctor.
Is It Safe to Pop Your Ears? When to See a Doctor
You’re now aware of why your ears pop – but is it safe? The answer is Yes, but it should always be done gently. The last thing you need while on your trip would be a clogged, painful ear. If you are going to travel for the first time or perhaps have traveled before and experienced clogged ears or are sensitive to water and air pressure, try the above methods. Should the symptoms persist or worsen when you try these methods, stop immediately and consult with your hearing health provider or doctor.