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Flight Training Aeromedical Issues - Middle Ear Physiology
How the middle ear reacts to changes in air pressure
The little tube connecting the middle ear cavity to the outside world (through the nose/back of throat) is called the Eustachian Tube. This small tube opens when necessary to regulate pressure within the middle ear cavity to match changing pressure outside the body.
Flight crew and passengers may notice some middle ear pressure changes occurring as the aircraft climbs and outside pressure decreases. The increased pressure of the middle ear cavity compared to outside may cause the eardrum to bulge outward. During a climb, a feeling of fullness and equalization may be felt as the Eustachian Tube opens and closes to equalize this pressure difference.
Issues such as ear pain and fullness with temporary hearing loss are more likely when descending. As the plane descends, pressure from the outside ear canal increases and may push the eardrum inward, creating a partial vacuum in the middle ear cavity. This vacuum in the middle ear and any congestion from colds or allergies in the back of the throat can make it difficult for the Eustachian tube to open. This increased pressure also prevents normal eardrum vibration of sounds and hearing loss may be experienced. If this vacuum and pressure are not relieved, fluids from the surrounding tissue can be drawn into the middle ear cavity, setting up a perfect moist, dark home for bacteria and the potential for future ear infections.
Yawning, opening and closing our mouth and the Valsalva Maneuver may help alleviate this often painful build up of pressure. The little "pop" we hear is the Eustachian Tube opening to provide pressure equalization, relieving pressure and pain. The EarPopper is for those times when yawning, chewing gum, swallowing, and the Valsalva maneuver are unable to open the Eustachian tube. The EarPopper delivers air through the nose where it is diverted up the Eustachian Tube while the person swallows, allowing pressure in the middle ear cavity to equalize with the outside pressure.
Anya Clowers (@EarPopperNurse) is a registered nurse, consultant, travel expert, author, and speaker. Her passion for quality travel has led to her research of "Products Worth Packing" for travelers of all ages. She is the author of Jet With Kids, the book, site www.JetWithKids.com, blog (JetWithKids blog), and travel seminars created to educate travelers about self-sufficient travel. Anya is also the daughter-in-law of a CFI, and the mother of a "future pilot" and international "frequent-flier-in-training," who has enjoyed traveling to 17 countries before finishing kindergarten.