A comfortable amount of ear pressure is necessary in order to hear properly, although if the ear is subjected to certain illnesses or conditions, that pressure can become quite uncomfortable or even painful. Depending on the cause of the pressure, relief may come in a variety of ways.
Basic Ear Anatomy
Ear pressure is mainly due to pressure in the Eustachian tube. This is a tube comprised of cartilage and bone running from the back of the nose to the middle ear. The middle ear is a hollowed out portion of the skull with the basic hearing mechanisms and the ear drum. The function of the Eustachian tube is two-fold; to regulate ear pressure and to drain any excess material in the ear space.
Causes of Ear Pressure
When the Eustachian tube is blocked, increased ear pressure may ensue because the tube is not able to maintain equilibrium. The Eustachian tube is similar to hollow sinus cavities, and, if agitated, it may swell, causing partial or complete blockage. One of the leading causes of excess ear pressure is the common cold because of the increase in drainage in the tube. Similarly, sinus infections or allergies can also cause blockage and lead to an increase in pressure in the Eustachian tube.
Changes in altitude can also cause or increase ear pressure because of the change in external air pressure. If the Eustachian tube is clogged or otherwise not able to compensate, the increased pressure may result in pain or discomfort. Rarely, small tumors grow can grow in the nasopharynx area at the base of the skull and obstruct the Eustachian tube.
Common Victims of Ear Pressure
Children are especially prone to increased ear pressure and infection because their Eustachian tubes are particularly small and narrow. Additionally, adults with smaller Eustachian tubes are susceptible to ear pressure discomfort. Individuals with Down syndrome may suffer similarly. Habitual smokers are also prone to increased ear pressure because of the damage to the cilia, or tiny hairlike structures, that remove excess mucus from the middle ear space.
Effects of Ear Pressure
The ear is used for both hearing and balance. When the normal fluid is disturbed or unequal due to an increase or decrease in pressure in the ear canals, vertigo, or dizziness, may ensue. There also may be popping or cracking in the ear, which may feel like a slight tickle. There may also be slight hearing loss or sound muffling due to excess fluids in the ear.
Treatment of Ear Pressure
Swallowing or yawning can trigger muscle groups to engage the opening of the Eustachian tube. The Eustachian tube may also be forcefully opened by trying to blow out of the nose while the nostrils are pinched shut.
Because colds and other respiratory illnesses are commonly the source of pressure buildup, treating the cold by reducing congestion may be the best way to treat the pressure.
The most common danger of increased ear pressure is infection (otitis media). Infection results when the Eustachian tube has been chronically blocked, causing fluid and bacteria to accumulate in the ear. Symptoms of infection are persistent discomfort, fever or intense pain. For treatment, the doctor will prescribe antibiotics, rest and additional fluids.