woman blocking her ears
woman blocking her ears

What is “Ear Popping?”

Pop, Pop, Pop…

If you’ve ever flown in an airplane or done a hike with a high elevation gain, you’ve probably experienced the sensation of “ear popping.” While it can be kind of annoying, you probably haven’t given it a second thought… unless you’ve experienced the dreaded clogging sensation that just won’t “pop!”

Well, ear popping doesn’t happen for no reason at all, and the delicate inner workings of your ear make it extra sensitive to built-up pressure and blockages. If you weren’t wondering before, we bet you’re wondering now: what is ear popping, and why do we experience it? Let’s take a look at the reasons for ear popping and how altitude can increase popping sensations.

What Is Ear Popping?

In order to understand what ear popping is and why it happens, we have to first understand a little about ear anatomy.

Your ears are made up of three main parts: the outer, middle and inner ear. The outer ear is largely what you can see, but it also includes the first bit of the ear canal, which funnels external sounds into the hearing center of your ear. The middle ear houses the rest of the canal and the ear drum, which vibrates when sound reaches it and sends vibrations through the three smallest bones in your body: the malleus, incus and stapes.

Finally, the inner ear consists of some of the most crucial components of the hearing system, like the cochlea (which translates vibration into electrical pulses for the brain) and the Eustachian tube, which is the fluid-filled cavity responsible for balancing pressure in your ears.

With the crucial role it plays in regulating ear pressure, the Eustachian tube is at the heart of the ear popping sensation we experience.

Many people experience ear popping at high altitudes, and that’s because, as a plane climbs to the sky, the pressure of the air changes drastically, and our ears need to adjust to the new pressure. Another common cause of ear popping is allergies or being sick, which can increase fluid build-up and, therefore, ear pressure.

In short, ear popping is not actually a sign of built up pressure, but it’s instead the result of our Eustachian tube regulating that pressure increase.

How to Safely Pop Your Ears

One of the key functions of your Eustachian tube is to regulate pressure, so if you’re feeling a little “clogged up,” chances are you’ll experience a “pop” sooner or later, but if you start feeling pain from the pressure and just need to open things up, there are a few things you can do to help.

The first is opening and closing your mouth wide or chewing gum. The consistent motion of your jaw can stimulate the Eustachian tube and cause it to open, relieving the pressure. Another way is to take some consistent sips of water or another liquid, as the swallowing will open things up. You can also plug your nose, close your mouth and gently blow out against your closed-up nose, which will force your Eustachian tube to open. The key to this last one is to be extremely gentle, as blowing out too hard can cause more harm than good.

While ear popping can be obnoxious, built up pressure in the ear can be far worse for your hearing and ear health. A blocked Eustachian tube is one of the common causes of temporary hearing loss, and if excess fluids remain for too long, it can lead to ear infections or long term complications. So the next time you experience ear popping, thank your Eustachian tube for helping to regulate your inner ear and keep you hearing and feeling good!

Have more questions about your hearing health? Beltone's network of experts and providers is always ready to help you take control of your hearing.

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