If you have ever flown on a jet to get to a travel destination you have probably experienced the feeling of clogged ears while flying. It generally begins as an uncomfortable pressure sensation, but it can rapidly progress to an intense pain if the sensation of pressure is not relieved. What, exactly, causes the pressure and the subsequent feeling that the ears are “clogged’ or plugged”? The answer requires a basic understanding of the anatomy of the ear:
In the illustration, we see that the ear is anatomically divided into three distinct regions: the external ear; the middle ear; and the inner ear. The external ear is that portion which can be seen—the external structure of the ear and the ear (auditory) canal. The middle ear is separated from the external ear by the tympanic membrane (ear drum). It is composed of the 3 smallest bones in the body: the malleous (hammer), the incus (anvil), and the stapes (stirrup). It is these three bones that transmit vibrations of the tympanic membrane (ear drum) to the inner ear where the cochlea converts those impulses to electric impulses that are transmitted along the auditory nerves to the brain. We then hear the vibrations of the ear drum as sound.
Normally, the pressure on either side of the ear drum is equal—the atmospheric pressure in the external auditory canal and the middle ear is the same, and the ear drum vibrates normally. However, when one is in an airplane, the pressure on the two sides of the ear drum can change. As the plane/jet ascends, the atmospheric pressure decreases. Therefore, the atmospheric pressure in the external ear can become less than that in middle ear. This causes an “outward” bulging of the ear drum that can be felt as “clogged” ears, or a sensation of pressure. We typically don’t notice this as a jet is ascending, however, because the Eustachian tube (see illustration) acts a type of “outlet valve” whereby the increased pressure forces the Eustachian tube (which opens into the nasal cavity) to open and the pressure between the external and middle ears again becomes equal. This generally happens without us ever knowing it.
We usually experience the sensation of clogged ears when the jet begins to descend. Commercial airliners typically fly at an altitude between 25,000 and 31,000 feet above sea level, but the cabin pressure is set by the pilot to be around 8000 feet above sea level. Remember that your external and middle ear pressure has equalized through the Eustachian tube during the ascent of the jet. As the aircraft descends, the atmospheric pressure again increases. This now means that the atmospheric pressure in the external ear also increases, while the pressure in the middle ear stays the same (remains low, with respect to the pressure in the external ear). In this situation, the ear drum bulges inward (think of the area of higher pressure pushing the ear drum towards the area of lower pressure). The Eustachian tube is unable to equalize the pressure because the pressure in the middle ear is lower than the pressure in the external ear. Our ears feel “clogged” because the ear drum is bulging and is not able to vibrate normally when sound waves stimulate it.
The Cure to Clogged Ears when Flying
The key to “curing” the problem is to make the pressure on both sides of the ear drum equal—a process known as “equalization”. We have typically been told that yawning or chewing gum while flying will make the ears “pop” and solve the problem, but we all know that these methods often don’t work and as we continue to yawn, our ears become more and more painful.
The secret to equalizing external and middle ear pressure every time you fly can be borrowed from a technique used by scuba divers. As a scuba diver descends, she experiences changes in atmospheric pressure in the same manner that the person on a descending jet experiences them: the pressure in the external ear becomes greater than the pressure in the middle ear. She has been taught a very simple technique to equalize the ear pressure so that the dive can continue.
The Technique for equalizing the ear pressure is very simple—pinch your nose closed with your thumb and forefinger. Now gently and slowly “blow your nose”. As you blow your nose, the pressure that is created will travel up through your Eustachian tube and cause the pressure on both sides of the ear drum to become equal. You will know this the instant that it happens because you will feel your ears “pop”. It’s just that easy! The pressure equalizes and the “clogged” sensation goes away!
Try it—RIGHT NOW! You will feel the “popping” sensation even thought the pressure on the external and middle ear is equal (assuming you are not in a jet or scuba diving while you read this).
You may find that this has to be done several times when the jet is descending because the atmospheric pressure is constantly changing until you land. Just keep doing it every few minutes until you are on the ground. Problem solved!
Incidentally, this technique works if you are flying, scuba diving, snorkeling, or just swimming in the deep end of a pool. Equalize the ear pressure and the “clogged ears” sensation goes away!