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Have you ever been on an airplane and experienced a strong pressure or “popping” in your ears? Have you ever wondered why your hearing abilities suddenly seem to plummet, rendering you hard of hearing for the duration of the airplane ride? This week’s Audicus blog explains the science behind barotrauma!

The pressure you feel in your ears during events like air travel can be attributed to barotrauma.

Barotrauma is the discomfort you feel when there’s a change in the air or water pressure of your surroundings, and it can happen when you relocate to places of increasing or decreasing elevation. It’s normal for people to experience barotrauma when their airplane is ascending or descending.

When a plane goes airborne, there is a decrease in environmental pressure while the air in your middle ear remains at a relatively high density. This causes your eardrum to be pushed outward. When a plane touches the ground, there is an increase in pressure, meaning that the air in your middle ear is relatively less dense. This causes your eardrum to be pushed inward.

Barotrauma happens when an air bubble enters the middle ear through the nose. The tiny air bubble goes through the eustachian tube, a channel that connects the upper throat to the middle ear.

The actual popping sound occurs when the air pressure of your middle ear is in the process of matching the air of your outside surroundings. This happens when air from the middle ear travels to the throat, using the eustachian tube as a passageway.

Dysfunction in the eustachian tube can be linked with instances of hearing loss. One case, in particular, includes failure of the eustachian tube to open and close properly, resulting in hearing loss and a condition called serous otitis media.

Barotrauma can affect more than just the ears. In cases of diving, pressure can also be exerted on the lungs as divers move closer to or farther away from the water’s surface.

Barotrauma of the ears can result in ear pain, temporary hearing loss, and dizziness. Some ways to stop the feeling of pressure in your ears include decongestants, filtered earplugs, chewing gum and yawning. People with heart disease or high blood pressure should try to use an alternative to decongestants. Many of the solutions to help relieve barotrauma caused by air travel can also be applied to diving-related barotrauma.

Barotrauma is not to be confused with tinnitus, a condition that is characterized by a buzzing or ringing sound in the ears. Barotrauma occurs when there is a change in environmental pressure, whereas tinnitus occurs from repeated exposure to loud noises and can happen in any setting. Tinnitus can also be permanent, whereas barotrauma normally stops a couple of hours after airplane travel.

Babies are predisposed to experiencing extended periods of barotrauma because their eustachian tubes are narrower. If you are carrying a baby during the flight, make sure that he or she has access to a bottle or pacifier, as sucking makes it easier to relieve ear pressure. The muscles that you use for swallowing help to further open the eustachian tubes.

By: Aaron Rodrigues