Recently I went to the top of a skyscraper in a lift. After I had gone up a few stories, I felt a funny sensation in my ears. My eardrums seemed like they were growing and were about to burst. As I went a little higher, the sensation was worse. My fellow passengers in the lift told me to swallow a few times. This would help the sensation pass, they said. And, it did.
This happens to a lot of people when they are flying, or skiing downhill at very high speeds, or going deep into a mine well.
This feeling is what is known as the popping of the ears.
But why do ears pop?
In the atmosphere, the pressure of air decreases as we go higher. So when I was traveling up in the lift, the air pressure on my ears changed rapidly. But, the pressure of air inside my ear drum remained what the pressure was at the ground level. As I went up, the air inside my ear drum became higher than the air pressure outside. So my ears tried to reduce the pressure inside. In this effort, the air inside pressed against my ear drum, making me feel like my ear drums were going to burst.
Similarly, if try to go down into a mine well, the pressure of air outside the ear will be higher than that of the air inside. Then the opposite will happen. The air outside will try to cave in my ear drums. And it will hurt me.
The pressure inside the ear is maintained by a device called the Eustachian tube. This tube links the middle ear to the throat. There is a valve at the end of it which admits or releases air to equalise the pressures inside and out. But I’ll have to swallow in order to open it. The popping of my ears is the internal sign reminding me to swallow when I’m travelling up or down at a high speed.
Popping is called barotrauma. It is one of those rare disorders which wears off with a few swallows or yawns.
But not, if I have a heavy cold. Then my ears are in danger of suffering some damage because of the close links between the throat and the ears.