Pain and discomfort in the ear due to pressure differences between the inside and outside of the eardrum is known as ear barotrauma. Normally, air pressure in the middle ear is the same as the pressure outside the body. You are most likely to experience air pressure differences during altitude changes, such as when you’re in an airplane that is descending, when you go into the mountains or scuba dive. But the discomfort of barotrauma can also be due to swelling in the eustachian tubes that connect the middle ear to the back of the nose and the throat. This may stem from allergies, colds or another respiratory infection.
By now you must have tried all the usual tricks to get your ears to pop – yawning, chewing gum, sucking on candy and inhaling and then gently exhaling while holding your nostrils closed and your mouth shut.
You can try to get your ears to pop by gargling regularly with warm salted water (add a quarter teaspoon of salt to about a cup of water). The temperature of the water should be as warm as you can tolerate. I also recommend seeking craniosacral therapy from an osteopath. This gentle manipulation of the bones in the head is very effective for treating chronic ear infections and relieving pressure and fluid in the middle ear. You also might try acupuncture, which can help if sinus congestion is an issue.
In rare cases, when the tubes don’t open after treatment with antibiotics or other medications, surgery can be performed to equalize pressure and allow fluid to drain.
Andrew Weil, M.D.