You know. The descent of your plane has started and your ears are closed. What often helps is to pinch your nose and mouth and blow your nose hard. Well, your ears “pop” open again. Never do this, say some of the travelers, because it is dangerous for your eardrum. But is that really so? In Fact or Fable, we find out if popping ears is something you should do.
To get a conclusive answer to this thorny issue, we called around and asked some doctors. The sometimes hellish ear pain that many passengers experiences, they say, has everything to do with the difference in air pressure that occurs during the ascent, but especially the descent. When an airplane rises to an altitude of between ten and eight miles (“cruising altitude”), the air pressure in the airplane is artificially lowered; comparable to the air pressure on a mountain top of 2,400 meters. When the plane descends, the air pressure is artificially brought back to sea level. These differences in air pressure are difficult for the ear to absorb. Popping the ears, or “clearing” in jargon, then helps.
More pain while descending than ascending
To understand this story better, we must first explain something about the functioning of the ear. In simple terms, hopefully. An ear has an inner and an outer part. The outer ear, which consists of the pinna and ear canal, is in contact with the outside air. The middle ear (behind the eardrum) consists of a closed system that is filled with air. The pressure has to be constant there. To ensure that, we have access to the Eustachian tube. That tube, which connects the middle ear to the throat, acts as a pressure valve and ensures that the pressure in the middle ear remains the same as the environment.
But now it comes. When an airplane takes off, the air pressure drops, and a relative overpressure is created in the middle ear. Time for the Eustachian tube to take action. That tube ensures that the excess pressure can escape from the middle ear. The eardrum is pushed outwards, as it were so that the pressure difference becomes equal again.
Of course, there will also come a time when you start to decline. Then the pressure in the ear works in the opposite direction: a relative negative pressure is created. Air must flow back into the ear through the Eustachian tube, but that backflow is more difficult than the other way. In other words: the pipe is less able to cope with that suddenly occurring difference in pressure than during the rise. The reason that you experience much less ear pain during takeoff than during landing.
The ‘popping’, the Valsalva movement
Well, because your ear does not process that change of pressure as quickly, the eardrum is pulled inwards and a temporary vacuum is created: you experience pain. Yawning or swallowing can help restore balance in the ear, but that is not enough for everyone. In short: firmer measures are needed. A tried and true method is to take a breath of air, close your nose and mouth with your hand and blow your closed nose with the appropriate force for a short period. The vacuum that has formed in your ear is released and your ears “pop” open again. This act even has a name: the Valsalva movement (or method).
Is ‘Popping Ears’ dangerous?
But now the question: is popping dangerous or not? Harmless, emphasizes the doctor. In fact, popping, clearing, or popping the ears is often the only way to relieve pressure. Don’t overdo it, though, and don’t blow your nose like crazy.
Isn’t prevention better than cure? Yes, says the doctor, but success is not guaranteed. You could take a sniff of nasal spray 15 minutes before landing. These drops shrink the mucous membrane around the Eustachian tube, which in turn has a beneficial effect on your ears. Warning: do not use this spray for too long in a row.
The well-known yawning or chewing a piece of gum also helps, because yawning and chewing keep the Eustachian tube open. Travelers who have an eardrum tube in their ear even have an advantage during take-off and landing because the tubes keep the ears open, making the pressure difference much less than for a traveler without tubes.
Finally, those who often sit on a plane know that children, in particular, react violently when descending. That is, says the doctor, because children catch a cold much more often than adults. And a cold can clog the Eustachian tube, making it more difficult for air to pass through. Furthermore, children are less able to compensate for the pressure difference by swallowing, chewing, yawning, or by popping the ears.
Conclusion: Popping Ears
Fable. Clearing the ears when taking off or landing is harmless and often the only way to relieve pressure and pain on the ears and.
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