What’s going on when your ears pop?

Dear Cecil:

What is it, exactly, that goes on when your ears pop? I live in a high-rise building and lately I've become obsessed with the idea that I'm gradually turning my eardrums into swiss cheese every time I take the express elevator. Give me some peace of mind, Cecil.

Cecil replies:

Dear Harold:

Ear-popping is your head’s ingenious way of keeping the air pressure balanced on either side of your eardrums. Too much pressure on one side or the other, and the tympanic membrane can’t vibrate. A connection called the eustachian tube, beginning on the nether side of the eardrum, is linked to a reservoir of air provided by the cavity located just above the roof of your mouth.

When you swallow, the eustachian tube opens and admits enough pressure to equalize the inside and outside pressures. But during the rapid changes in air pressure that occur during an elevator ride or an airplane dive, the eustachian tube remains closed, and it takes some vigorous swallowing to even things out afterward.

Or you can try the Valsalva technique, named after the Italian anatomist Antonio Maria Valsalva (1663-1723), who recommended it for clearing pus out of an infected middle ear: cover your mouth and nose and blow out as hard as you can. Daring and original, no? The cracking sound you hear has nothing to do with the eardrum– it’s the sound of the air rushing into the tube, rendering everything copacetic.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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