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Why Is My Ear Popping?

There are a variety of unusual sounds and sensations that occur in our ears and many different reasons why we experience these sounds and sensations. One unusual sound is a cracking or popping sound. 

Several reasons can be attributed to your ear popping or cracking.  The vast majority of the time, when it happens, it is not a sign of anything harmful. In fact, most often when your ear pops, you have actually already cleared the issue that caused it. On the other hand, if ear popping frequently occurs or is accompanied by pain or other issues, it can adversely affect a person’s life and may also indicate an underlying issue. A person suffering from continual ear popping may have excessive ear wax, a sinus or viral infection, or middle ear fluid. Any of these causes could point to a deeper cause. The rest of this article will focus on both the simple and complicated cases of ear popping and what you should do if it becomes unbearable.

What Can Cause Crackling In Your Ear? 

The crackling in your ear can be caused by a multitude of things, but one of the most common reasons is a change in pressure of your ear drum. If you have ever been on an airplane, gone scuba diving, climbed a mountain, or even sneezed when you had a sinus infection, then you probably have experienced your ears popping. These are almost always temporary scenarios that immediately get better when you pop your ears. There are, however, other instances when your ears crack or pop that can be indicative of a deeper issue. Examples of these possible causes are as follows: 

Your Eustachian tube is a small narrow tube that connects the middle part of your ear to the back of your upper nose and throat. The Eustachian tube allows airflow to your eardrum. It is this airflow that helps to create equal pressure on both sides of your ear. When there is a sudden change in that pressure, your ears usually need to pop to resolve the pressure imbalance.  The popping sensation is safe and not cause for alarm.

Most of the time, your Eustachian tubes are closed. When you do things like chew, yawn, or swallow they open up. A Eustachian tube malfunction occurs when they fail to open or shut properly. Other than popping, some of the other symptoms of a malfunction include:

  • Fullness or congestion in your ear
  • Ear pain or infection
  • Hearing loss or muffled hearing
  • Dizziness or vertigo

Some of the reasons that your Eustachian tubes may malfunction include infection, allergies, inflamed tonsils, irritants in the air, or nasal polyps or tumors. Any of these issues can cause inflammation or a physical blockage of the tubes.

Acute otitis media is a fancy way of saying that you have an ear infection. Acute otitis media is much more common in children than adults, but it can happen at any age. The Eustacian tube dysfunction described above is one of the major causes of middle ear infections because the tubes become narrowed, blocked, or have fluid accumulate in them subsequently causing infection. The symptoms of a middle ear infection include ear pain, difficulty hearing, or fluid draining from the ear. Children may experience even more severe symptoms including fever, headache, irritability, lower appetite, or trouble sleeping. 

  • Earwax buildup 

Ear wax, or cerumen, is produced by your ear to clean, protect, and lubricate your ears in a natural way. Ear wax is made in the outer ear canal where special glands produce it and usually it either falls out or is washed away in the normal routine of life. Sometimes, however, you produce too much and the earwax begins to build up in your ear. In many cases of excessive earwax, popping or crackling in the ear is experienced. 

Your temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is what connects your jawbone to your skull. Any time you have an injury in this area the result may be a TMJ disorder. If you have a TMJ disorder, you will probably feel and hear a clicking noise especially since the joint is directly adjacent to both of your ears. This is a little different popping sound than the pop/crackling that the rest of the article discusses but it can be very annoying and it may get worse if you do not seek assistance from a doctor.

  • Middle ear myoclonus (MEM)

Middle ear myoclonus (MEM) is a rare form of tinnitus (ringing in the ear) that happens due to specific muscles (stapedius) in your ear spasming. The muscles work together to transmit vibrations from the eardrum and bones in the middle ear to the inner ear. It is not known what causes MEM but it could be a congenital condition, based on an acoustic injury, or from other tremors or spasms. A spasm of the stapedius muscle can cause a buzzing, crackling, or clicking sound. 

Ear Popping: When to see a doctor 

As mentioned above, if your ear occasionally pops or if you experience crackling in your ear due to pressure changes, it is probably not serious. There are some occasions, however, when ear popping is life-altering or abnormal. In these cases a visit to the doctor is necessary. Here are some things to look out for that, when present, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor right away:

  • Crackling or popping that interferes with your day-to-day activities or makes it hard for you to hear normal sounds.
  • Severe symptoms that are persistent or that keep coming back.
  • An ear infection that lasts more than one day.
  • Ear discharge, and especially if it contains blood or pus.

What Are The Treatment Options?

The treatment for popping ears really depends on the reason that they are popping. As mentioned above, if it is just a case of pressure change or another simple cause, the popping may actually clear your ears and fix the problem resulting in no health risk. When the popping sensation is actually an underlying condition of another health issue, intervention may be necessary as follows:

  • Antibiotics to treat an infection.
  • Earwax removal by a professional. We recommend against using a cotton swab or other item that you insert into your ear to try and clean it out as this may inadvertently make the issue worse.
  • Small tubes can be placed in your ears to help equalize pressure and drain fluid. This is more common in children but it also happens occasionally in adults.
  • A bite guard will sometimes provide relief for people who suffer with TMJ.
  • Prescription medications for the relief of TMJ pain.
  • Sometimes surgery is needed to cure TMJ issues.

There are also some home remedies when you experience ear popping that is not severe or life altering. Here are some at-home ideas that may help, but if they do not help immediately a trip to the doctor is necessary.

  • Pop your ears. Either by yawning, chewing, or swallowing. If you can pop your ears you may relieve the pressure immediately.
  • Nasal irrigation in the form of saline or salt water rinse can help as well. It will remove excess mucus and fluids that may be clogging your sinuses.
  • Earwax removal kits such as the drops you find at a drugstore, will soften the wax in your ear so that it is easier to remove or falls out on its own.
  • TMJ exercises may allow you to relieve the pain and symptoms of TMJ. Massages and other exercises are key to keeping the joining working appropriately.

How To Prevent Ear Popping 

It is difficult to predict when and why your ears might pop or crackle, but if it is a recurring issue for you there are some things you can do to prevent it from continuing.

  • Prevent respiratory infections. The common cold, flu, or sinus infections can often lead to eustachian tube dysfunction. Washing your hands, not sharing personal items, and staying away from others who are sick are all good approaches to reduce your risk of infection.
  • Stay away from environmental irritants. Doing this requires understanding what things in the environment constitute an irritant to you. For instance, if you are allergic to dogs but not plants, you do not need to worry about being outside but may choose to stay away from homes with pets.
  • Do not use cotton swabs in your ears. Regardless of if you suffer from ear popping or not, we always advise you to avoid using cotton swabs in your ears.  A cotton swab simply pushes the wax deeper into your ear drum and increases the chance for complications.

Dr. D’Anne Rudden

Dr. D’Anne Rudden has been helping Longmont and the surrounding communities hear better and find tinnitus relief for over 20 years. She is an expert in the fitting, dispensing, programming, and verification of advanced hearing technology and implantable devices, as well as in the diagnosis of hearing problems. She uses best practices to assure that your hearing solutions are personalized and customized for your specific needs.
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