Common symptoms of blocked ears include a sensation of “fullness” in the ears, impaired hearing, dizziness, and sometimes even tinnitus. If this sounds familiar to you, check out my guide on plugged ear treatment with 8 eustachian tube exercises to unclog ears that really work!
And Don’t worry the techniques I will be sharing with you today doesn’t involve using a plunger to unblock your ears.
The universal cause of blocked ears
To understand the mechanism behind the techniques I’ll describe in this article, it’s important to know the structure of your ears and what are the so-called Eustachian tubes.
Your middle ear is a small chamber located right behind the eardrum and connected to the back of your nasopharynx (the part of your throat located right behind your nasal cavity) by narrow passageways called the Eustachian tubes, which have one main function: to keep the pressure in your middle ear equal to the external air pressure.
When the external air pressure goes down (for example, during airplane take-off), the air in your middle ears expands and part of it escapes via the Eustachian tubes. Later, when the pressure goes up, the tiny portion of air that was left in your ears shrinks and results in a localized zone of negative pressure (vacuum) that shuts your Eustachian tubes from the inside. And voila, there you go. Blocked ears.
This condition never resolves on its own. The only way to alleviate it is to actively open the Eustachian tubes, thus equalizing the pressure in your middle ear and external environment.
Easier said than done, isn’t it? Let’s move on to some specific techniques you can try out!
Eustachian Tube Exercises
(P.S. The best one is the last on the list!)
Yawning and swallowing
This is how your body naturally opens up its Eustachian tubes. Although you (most likely) can’t yawn at will, the second option is easy to perform, and quite effective for mild cases of plugged ears.
Drawbacks: The relief is often inconsistent, especially in significant blockages due to Eustachian tube dysfunction or chronical inflammatory conditions.
Bring your swallowing efforts to the next level of effectiveness with one simple trick: just pinch your nose. This is known as the Toynbee maneuver. Swallowing opens up the Eustachian tubes while your tongue pushes some air through them after compressing it in the oral cavity (due to the pinched nose).
Drawbacks: Same as in the previous point, as this technique is just a bit more effective than usual swallowing.
This classic technique is widely used by pilots, astronauts and professional divers. It consists of closing your mouth, pinching your nose, and trying to exhale through the closed nose. This elevates the air pressure in your mouth and throat, thus forcefully opening your Eustachian tubes and blowing the air through them.
Drawbacks: This technique is quite harsh for the ears, especially when performed by somebody with little to no experience with the maneuver, or without proper training by qualified instructors. The significant increase of pressure can result in barotrauma (injury by pressure) up to the point of eardrum perforation.
Roughly speaking, this is a combination of the Valsalva and Toynbee maneuvers. Close your mouth, pinch your nose, try to exhale through the nose, and swallow (everything simultaneously).
Drawbacks: Although this technique is very effective even in cases of moderate ear blockage, it’s also much more dangerous in terms of possible barotrauma. Perform at your own risk, and only if you have proper experience with the classic Valsalva maneuver.
Push your jaw forward and down, pinch your nose and perform the Valsalva maneuver. This technique is believed to be a bit more effective than the classic version of the maneuver, but not all people can effectively move their jaw in the described direction without experiencing discomfort.
Drawbacks: Same as in the classic Valsalva maneuver. This technique is not recommended for people with temporomandibular joint (TMJ) syndrome, and injuries to the jaw and/or teeth.
Voluntary tubal opening (VTO)
Hands down, this is the most effective way to clear plugged ears, as it consists of opening them at will just as if you were moving a finger. The catch here is that there is no guarantee you’ll master the technique, or how long could it take to learn it. Although special courses were designed and created for the sole purpose of educating pilots, divers, and astronauts to voluntarily open their Eustachian tubes, most of them still prefer sticking to something more tangible and simple, like the Valsalva maneuver or its variations.
Drawbacks: VTO takes a lot of time and efforts to master, so it can’t be a source of immediate relief.
Carefully grab the lobes of your ears and firmly pull them outwards to their respective sides (right lobe to the right, left lobe to the left).
Push your jaw forward (while still pulling your ears outwards). Maintain this position for 5-6 seconds, then return your jaw to its initial position.
Open your mouth as wide as you can (while still pulling your ears outwards). Maintain this position for 5-6 seconds, then close your mouth.
Repeat the jaw movement. Repeat the mouth movement.
Dr. Alan Mandell affirms that this technique brings relief after approximately 20 seconds of repeating the described steps. And, while that’s true in cases of mild to moderate ear blockages, the technique has a few drawbacks to consider.
Drawbacks: although quite effective, this technique is rather embarrassing to perform in crowded places such as airplanes. Also, by the 20th second, most likely, your ear lobules will be hurting like hell (mine do, at least).
Unlike the other techniques listed, this method is not free so I decided to leave it until last.
Also known as the Politzer maneuver, this procedure consists of using a medical device to gently blow a bit of air up your nose during the act of swallowing. Introduced back in 1861 by Hungarian physician Ádám Politzer, one of the pioneers of otology, this clever technique has combined the natural way of your body to open the Eustachian tubes with a little external aid to make your own efforts more effective.
Although the first politzerization device was just a pear-shaped rubber airbag, today’s options are much more pleasant and easy to use. The brightest example, perhaps, is Eustachi, the Eustachian tube exerciser, a tiny device which fits into any bag and aids you in opening your Eustachian tubes by applying a gentle blow of air up your nose.
Drawbacks: none, as it is based on your body’s natural way of opening your Eustachian tubes. Also, the air pressure applied is too low to cause a barotrauma, thus making this option the safest one on this list (along with VTO).
The bottom line
Although having plugged ears can be frustrating at the very least, there are quite a lot of techniques you could try to alleviate the condition. Some of them are safer than others, and not all of them are equally effective, so be sure to wisely weigh your options before jumping into action. Remember: blocked ears are always better than a ruptured eardrum.