making friends with your middle ear
The middle ear sits between your ear-drum and the ear's specialized sensor
organs and balance organs. It is sealed at the ear-drum and where it links to
the sensor organs but has a floppy tube connecting it to the back of the nasal
passages. This tube is called the Eustachian tube.
When you move up and down in altitude the pressure changes result in a
differential pressure between the middle ear cavity and the outside air. This
results in a full feeling in the ear, sort of cotton-woolly, and some reduction
in hearing capacity. When this pressure difference reaches a certain level air
often vents through the Eustachian tube and the pressures equalize. As the
pressures equalize the ear-drum moves quickly back to its normal position - the
'pop' that you hear as your ears pop. Sometimes, especially if there is fluid in
the middle ear or the Eustachian tube, there is more of a 'crackle' or a
'squelch' than a pop (Sounds a bit like a Rice Bubbles commercial doesn't it?)
When the Eustachian tube is blocked the differences in air pressure can't
equalize and the ear-drum can be stretched beyond it's limits and bleed or
rupture. The Eustachian tube can become blocked when you have a cold or when you
have hay fever type allergies. These conditions cause the blockage because the
skin at the opening of the Eustachian tube swells up and squeezes the opening
Most people can deliberately pop their ears during flight or when stationary at
a fixed altitude. It's not difficult to do. You can often pop your ears just by
wiggling your jaw or moving it with a chewing action. Then there's the Valsalva
manoeuvre where you force air up into your Eustachian tubes by blocking your
nose, closing your mouth and blowing to gently increase the pressure in your
mouth, nose and throat. The Frenzel, or jaw thrust, manoeuvre is where you slide
your lower jaw forward to open the entrance to the Eustachian tubes.
Sometime, especially in some sensitive people, when you pop your ears the sudden
change in pressure is transmitted, as a miniature shock wave, into the inner
ear's balance sensors. This pressure wave confuses the balance sensors which
send tumbling or spinning signals to the brain. The brain receives these signals
and immediately sets the eyes moving to allow for the perceived tumble or spin.
This phenomenon is called alternobaric vertigo which translates roughly as '
dizziness from pressure change'.
Your first step is to learn to let your middle ear pressures equalize without
sending a pressure wave up to those balance organs. The best way to do this is
to not use the Valsalva manoeuvre but to try, whenever appropriate, to use
either the Frenzel manoeuvre or chewing or waggling your jaw to assist in
popping your ears. This may take a little practice but after a while it will
come quite naturally.