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Whenever I'm flying, there's a period of descent where my right ear just refuses to pop. This has been bothering me for at least ten years. There seems to be a long stage of descent where my ear is just in agony. I've tried chewing gum, closing my nose and lightly blowing, opening my mouth, everything. However, when descending into landing (I can see cars at this point) it will start to pop.

Otherwise, it'll pop when I swallow at this stage or even while I'm walking around in the airport. The only thing that makes it pop early and at the same time as my left ear would be when I yawn.

When it does pop, it actually hurts sometimes. It has a very distinct pop, too. Instead of a light pop, it sort of stutters a bit, like it pops twice, and it's much louder.

This phenomenon seems to be very unique to when I'm flying on a commercial airline and descending. It has never happened upon ascension, and from the few times I've driven into mountains it hasn't happened, although that hasn't happened enough to be sure.

What about the descent makes this happen? Is there anything I can do to fix this issue?

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  • $\begingroup$ "closing my nose and lightly blowing" Actually it takes quite a bit of effort to pop your ears this way. Try blowing harder (and yes, it is uncomfortable). $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Sep 25 '18 at 0:05
  • $\begingroup$ This is too sideways a response for a proper answer, but if you take up scuba diving, you will find that you pop your ears automatically before any large pressure differential builds up. That's good because the larger the differential, the harder it can be to pop them. When ascending or descending in scuba, you have to pop your ears so frequently that it becomes an automatic reflex that you don't even think about. $\endgroup$ – Wayne Conrad Sep 25 '18 at 13:18
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with John K that you should see a doctor if it’s much of a problem for you. Eustachian tube blockage is a very common problem. Yawning is the normal way of opening up the tubes, but there are a variety of different methods. They’re outlined in this Wikipedia page. $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Sep 25 '18 at 17:43
  • $\begingroup$ @WayneConrad you have to "manually" equalize as pressure increases (on the way down) but when surfacing your ears should self-equalize ... if you don't you end up with a nasty thing called a Reverse Ear Block - diversalertnetwork.org/health/ears/… $\endgroup$ – ivanivan Sep 27 '18 at 2:59
  • $\begingroup$ @ivanivan Thanks for the clarification. I haven't dove for so long that I've forgotten the details. But I still have the ear pop reflex I learned from it. $\endgroup$ – Wayne Conrad Sep 27 '18 at 3:09
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The eustachian tube is a vent line that connects your inner ear to the back of your throat. Like the sinuses, higher pressure air flows outbound from the inner ear (when cabin pressure is dropping) with pressure changes easier than inbound (when cabin pressure is rising).

So the air trying to get back in on descent has a harder time than when it was leaking out unnoticeably on the climb, and a pressure differential builds up before it equalizes the pressure - the pop. Part of the tube is through cartilage and it's helped to open more by mechanically "massaging" it so to speak by moving your jaw.

It sounds like the tube for your right ear, which is partly in cartilage and partly in bone, is misshapen enough that it takes an abnormally high pressure differential to equalize pressure when the pressure change happens quickly like on an airplane. This is putting a lot of stress on your eardrum (which is what the pain is from).

Decongestants often help but if it is a severe chronic problem, which yours sounds like, as a last resort there is a procedure that is usually done temporarily on babies (where the tube is blocked until they grow more - one of my kids had one put in, which falls out on its own later), called a shunt, where a doctor implants a tube across your ear drum to allow the inner ear to vent that way.

Anyway, you should see a doc about it if it's that bad.

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