You're about to land after a long, cramped flight, and just as you're turning your phone off airplane mode, you feel like your head is going to explode. You chew some gum, force a yawn, and still feel pressure. While the sensation is annoying and a little stressful, there's actually a scientific explanation behind the phenomenon — and an easy way to fix it.
See, there's a part of the inner ear called the "middle ear space" that's supposed to have some air in it, so the ear drum can vibrate properly (and so you can hear), says Erich Voigt, otolaryngologist and clinical associate professor in the Department of Otolaryngology at NYU Langone Medical Center. Ideally, there should be equal air pressure on either side of your ear drum, but any changes in the air pressure outside can throw the balance off. This is what you experience in an airplane, driving up a mountain, taking a fast elevator, or even diving in a pool.
"If there's is less air pressure outside of our head — such as going up in a plane — our ear drums will bulge out and we will feel this pressure in the ears," Dr. Voigt says. Or on the flip side, if there is more atmospheric air pressure, like when diving into a pool, then your ear drums will be pressed in, and you'll feel a similar type of pressure, he says. "It is uncomfortable because there is an actual physical stretch of the ear drum, as well as pressure gradient in the ear, and a clogged hearing sense," he explains.
Since air gets to your middle ear through a tube in the back of your nose that's attached to your jaw, called the Eustachian tube, you may feel the urge to chew, yawn, or open your mouth when you're clogged up — and these methods can work. "The muscles of swallowing that are attached to the jaw and palate are responsible for opening and closing the Eustachian tube, allowing for the flow of air in and out of it," Dr. Voigt says.
If you need to bring a little more power to the problem, the best thing you can do is pinch your nostrils and swallow, Dr. Voigt says. This should generate enough pressure to pop your ears, so trying to blow out with your nose blocked up isn't necessary.
Generally, your ears automatically adjust to daily atmospheric pressure changes without you even noticing, Dr. Voigt says. But if you always feel pressure inside your ear, or you're wandering around an airport in a haze, unable to pop your ears clear, then it's a good idea to see an ear-nose-throat doctor who can figure out what's going on. Sometimes the pressure can be a sign that your Eustachian tubes aren't working correctly, which can require a surgical procedure, he says. Or it might just mean you have allergies or a sinus infection, and you'll be back to normal with proper treatment.
So, while it's momentarily annoying to feel like you have to pop your ears, it may be a sign that they're working properly. Go ahead and get them clear, then get back to whatever podcast you were going to listen to on the plane.