From altitude changes to ear infections, there are many reasons why pressure may build up in the ears. Sometimes, the pressure is easy to relieve, but on occasion, it takes a little longer.
Pressure in the ears develops when air and fluid block one of the major ear tubes, causing what is medically known as ear barotrauma.
Children and babies are more susceptible to pressure-related blockages in the ears, as they have narrower Eustachian tubes than adults.
In this article, we discuss why people feel pressure in their ears, ways to relieve pressure when the ears do not pop, and tips to prevent it in the future.
The ears rely on pressure to function. It is because of pressure waves, which increase and decrease slightly, that people are able to hear.
However, the pressure within the ear must match the pressure outside the body. If the pressure either inside or outside the body becomes too high or too low, the ear will try to adapt to regain the balance.
This creates the feeling of the ears needing to pop.
Many factors can cause pressure to build up in the ears. Outside the body, air pressure may change with altitude changes, while depth changes alter hydrostatic pressure in water.
Activities in which altitude and hydrostatic pressure can change include:
- flying on an airplane
- scuba diving
- commercial diving
- hyperbaric oxygen treatment
Internal causes, such as congestion, can induce a buildup of air or fluid in the eustachian tube in the ear. This buildup creates a feeling of pressure in the ears.
The blockage to the eustachian tube may come from:
When pressure builds up in the ears, it can cause pain and discomfort, but it can also affect the person’s hearing and cause dizziness.
To relieve pressure, people can first try to pop the ears by opening the eustachian tube. They can do this by:
- chewing gum
- wiggling the jaw
- exhaling gently against a closed airway in the Valsalva maneuver
If possible, sucking on hard candy, such as a lollipop, can be a nice, gentle way of keeping the ear tubes open. For a baby, sucking on a bottle or pacifier can have the same effect.
People can try to prepare before an activity that is likely to increase the pressure in the ears. For instance, it may help to begin wiggling the jaw just before a plane takes off so that the ears have longer to adjust to the outside pressure.
Treatments for pressure in the ears can be either preventive, such as for a person about to take a flight, or curative, for those who have blocked ears that they cannot pop.
A doctor may prescribe preventive treatments if a person has preexisting ear problems.
OTC options are suitable for scuba divers to take before a descent or air travelers to take before a flight. However, a person should not use them too frequently as their extended use can result in complications.
For instance, decongestant nasal sprays may stop offering relief and instead increase congestion if a person overuses them.
To relieve pressure after it has built up in the ears, a doctor can dilate the eustachian tube. To do this, they may use a eustachian tube balloon dilation or a pressure equalization tube, which releases fluid and pressure from the eardrum to the ear canal.
If these treatments do not work, a doctor may perform a surgical incision in the eardrum to release fluid and pressure. Surgery may also be necessary if a person ruptures their eardrum.
Scientists are still conducting research, but a device known as an Ear Popper, which delivers a stream of air through the nasal cavity to clear the area, may soon be available.
It is important to be cautious when relieving pressure in the ears, as an excessive pressure change in the ear may cause a burst or ruptured eardrum, also called a perforated tympanic membrane.
If the eardrum ruptures, it can cause other complications, including:
The best way to prevent a pressure buildup in the ears depends on the cause. If a person knows that they are about to participate in an activity with an increase or decrease in external pressure, they can prepare by treating the problem before it begins.
For example, a person can reduce the chances of blocked ears while scuba diving by keeping the pressure inside the ears in line with the pressure of the outside environment.
Divers do this by continually equalizing, which involves pinching the nose and gently blowing out. They do this throughout the dive but with particular attention during descent. Scuba divers also follow a golden rule of never holding their breath while underwater, as this can cause pulmonary barotrauma.
Another example is in hyperbaric chambers, where people undergo a form of oxygen therapy. Here, doctors minimize the chances of pressure building up in the ears by controlling the compression rate and consistency of the pressure within the chamber.
As we discussed above, a person can reduce the buildup of pressure during a flight by sucking on candy, wiggling the jaw, or using other similar methods to keep the eustachian tube open.
Regularly inhaling tobacco smoke increases the risk of severely blocked ears. A person may be able to lower the pressure in their ears by refraining from smoking.
The ears rely on a fine balance of pressure to function effectively. If the balance between the pressure within the ear and that outside the body changes, the ears will adapt to match the external pressure. This creates the sensation of ears feeling as though they need to pop.
Before an activity that may put pressure on the ears, such as flying, people can try popping the ears before the pressure becomes too great.
If the ears will not pop, it is important not to force them. While pressure in the ears can be highly uncomfortable, it is generally not dangerous, and a rapid change of pressure in the ear can put the eardrum at risk.
It sometimes takes a few days for the pressure to balance out, but a person will then notice a “pop” as the eustachian tube clears.