Ear pain caused by pressure changes when taking off or landing in an airplane is known as ear barotrauma, barotitis media, aerotitis media, or “airplane ears”. In order for your eardrum to vibrate normally, the air pressure in the middle ear has to be the same as the air pressure of the environment. It is the eustachian tubes job to regulate this pressure. One end of the eustachian tube is connected to the middle ear and the other to the nasopharynx – where the back of the nasal cavity and top of the throat meet.
Normally the tissues in your middle ear slowly absorb air. This means there is less air pressure on the inside of your eardrum than on the outside. When you swallow or yawn you use muscles that open the eustachian tube and allow the middle ear to replenish its air supply. When rapid changes in pressure occur your eardrum may stretch causing muffled hearing and a feeling of pressure or pain. Fluid may fill the space in an attempt to equalize sustained air pressure imbalance. In severe cases pressure may cause a rupture of the eardrum.
Usually self-care steps can prevent or correct the differences in the air pressure and improve airplane ear symptoms. Some recommendations are chewing gum, yawning, nasal spray for any congestion, and the Valsalva Maneuver. The Valsalva Maneuver is the technical term for closing the nose with the thumb and index finger and exhaling gently with the mouth closed. Additionally there are pressure reducing ear plugs available.