Why Do Your Ears Pop When The Airplane Takes Off?

Table of Contents (click to expand)

The Eustachian tube is a small channel connecting the inner ear to the throat on each side. These tubes are attached to the tensor veli palatini muscles in your soft palate and are automatically activated whenever you swallow or yawn, causing that characteristic pop that makes your ear as sensitive as Spiderman’s!

Whether you’re a frequent flier or a virgin in the skies, there are a few things that you will always experience when traveling in an airplane, particularly during landing and take-off. As the airplane ascends and attains a stable altitude, you might feel a sense of weightlessness, have a funny sensation in your stomach and your ears will most likely pop.

What does the popping of your ears even mean? And why does it happen in airplanes during take-offs and landings?


Recommended Video for you:



Air Pressure

Just like the way pressure increases as you go deeper underwater, air pressure (or atmospheric pressure) decreases as you go higher up, such that any point on the ground experiences more pressure than something a few thousand feet above it.

Diagram of atmospheric pressure vs altitude
Graph of atmospheric pressure vs altitude (Photo credit : Blamb / Shutterstock)

This is because the air at ground level is denser, as there are more and more air molecules pushing down on the molecules below, thereby increasing atmospheric pressure at lower altitudes. You should note that the atmosphere we’re surrounded by is actually quite heavy; in fact, we should be crushed by the weight of it, in theory, but luckily that doesn’t happen (Read more about it here: Why Don’t We Get Crushed By Atmospheric Pressure?).

Also Read: Why Do Your Ears Hurt (Or Pop) When You Dive Deep Underwater?

Inside The Ear

In order to for us to hear things and, more importantly, preserve the integrity of our entire auditory system, it’s essential that the air pressure between the air inside and outside of our ears remains roughly the same. This balance is maintained by something known as the Eustachian tube, a small channel connecting the inner ear to the throat on each side. These tubes are attached to the tensor veli palatini muscles in your soft palate and are automatically activated whenever you swallow or yawn, causing that characteristic pop that makes your ear as sensitive as Spiderman’s!

Basic anatomy of the ear, from the outer ear to the inner ear, showing the pinna, EAM, cochlea and eustachian tube. Created in Adobe Illustrator. Contains transparencies. EPS 10.
Photo credit : Blamb/ Shutterstock

Sounds from the outer ear are passed to the inner ear by a thin vibrating membrane called the eardrum. For the eardrum to act normally, the air pressure between the air inside and outside of the ear has to remain (almost) the same. However, when you’re taking off in an airplane, or ascending rapidly in any manner whatsoever, that balance begins to dwindle.

Since air pressure inside your ear is higher than the air pressure outside, the eardrum bulges outward, the result of which is that stuffy feeling in your ears, when every sound around you feels muffled for a few minutes, until you “pop” them back to normal. As the airplane reaches a certain height and stops ascending any further, the Eustachian tube opens itself up, making that popping sound in the process.

seal meme

Also Read: Why Does Popping Your Ears Cause Such Clarity In Hearing?

How To Actively Pop Your Ears?

Since the whole problem arises due to changes in air pressure between the inner and outer ear, all you have to do is find a way to keep the air pressure equal. This can be done by actively opening up the Eustachian tubes by swallowing or yawning on purpose. This will cause the air pressure inside your ear to sync up with the air pressure outside (i.e. in the airplane cabin). Chewing gum during landing also helps alleviate this problem.

Girl pinching her nose
Apply counter-pressure by closing your mouth and pinching your nose (Photo credit : KPG_Payless/ Shutterstock)

Alternatively, you can prevent your ears from popping by exerting counter-pressure. With your mouth closed, pinch your nose to shut both nostrils and blow gently. With no other outlet, the air presses on the Eustachian tubes to equalize the air pressure. Don’t blow too hard, as it can be quite painful if you do so. Just blow gently and long enough to ‘un-pop’ your ears.

Next time you’re flying in airplane and notice that your neighbor is closing their mouth and pinching their nose, you can assume they know a bit about physics – or at least the way that our ears are designed!

References (click to expand)
  1. Why Your Ears Pop (And What to Do If They Don't) - Gizmodo. Gizmodo
  2. Evans, R. W., Purdy, R. A., Goodman, S. H., Evans, R. W., & Purdy, R. A. (2007, May). Airplane Descent Headaches. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain. Wiley.
  3. How to Prevent Your Ears from Popping - wikiHow. wikiHow
About the Author

Ashish is a Science graduate (Bachelor of Science) from Punjabi University (India). He spearheads the content and editorial wing of ScienceABC and manages its official Youtube channel. He’s a Harry Potter fan and tries, in vain, to use spells and charms (Accio! [insert object name]) in real life to get things done. He totally gets why JRR Tolkien would create, from scratch, a language spoken by elves, and tries to bring the same passion in everything he does. A big admirer of Richard Feynman and Nikola Tesla, he obsesses over how thoroughly science dictates every aspect of life… in this universe, at least.

.