We’ve all felt that bubbling pressure in our ears when flying, either as we take off and ascend to cruising altitude or as we’re coming in for a landing. For some, it’s excruciating, while for others, it’s more of a slight nuisance. Either way, it’s uncomfortable. You might’ve heard that chewing gum can help relieve that pressure while flying — and it actually works.
The discomfort you feel in your ears is a condition called ear barotrauma, and it’s all about a part of your inner ear called the eustachian tube, a tiny canal behind your ear drum that helps equalize pressure between the air outside and inside of your ear. Most of the time, when you’re staying put at a constant altitude, the pressure remains the same. But different altitudes have different air pressures, so if you ascend or descend quickly — as in a plane or even an elevator — your eustachian tube can’t quite catch up to the rapid changes, and the pressure builds up and causes pain.
“Despite the pressure stabilizer that every plane has, the air pressure is so sudden that the air trapped in our inner ear doesn't have enough time to adapt to the atmospheric pressure change,” says Dr. Nikola Djordjevic, a medical advisor based in Belgrade, Serbia.
There are a number of ways you can create equilibrium in your ears, including chewing gum. “When we chew gum, we open the eustachian tube and allow the air with the new atmospheric pressure to reach our inner ear,” says Dr. Djordjevic. “The process evens out the pressure, and we feel relief.” You’ll know you’ve been successful when you feel a pop or two inside your ear.
However, some experts advise against chewing gum as a means of ear barotrauma relief, as it causes you to swallow air, which can make you feel bloated on the plane. Some alternative methods to pop your ears and equalize the pressure include yawning, swallowing, the Valsalva maneuver (pinching your nose, closing your mouth, and blowing out), and the Toynbee maneuver (pinching your nose, closing your mouth, and swallowing). You can also purchase special ear plugs that help your ears adapt to different pressures more slowly, thus allowing you to avoid any painful pressure buildup.
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