Ears and Airplanes

I’ve just returned from a trip to the USA.  I was at an anatomy conference talking about my involvement with Anatomy Nights.

If you aren’t aware of it then go over to Anatomynights.com and consider coming along to our next event.

Anyway one of the first things I thought I would explain from this trip is why your ears pop when you go up and down in an airplane.  We have all experienced it, that muffling deafness and discomfort in your ears as you take off or land.  Your mother may have told you to yawn, your father may have told you to suck a sweet, your brother may have told you to hold your nose and mouth and blow.  They are all telling you to do the same thing – open your Eustachian tube.

We aren’t meant to use eponyms anymore in anatomy so to give it its proper name it is the pharyngotympanic tube, but if we did that I wouldn’t be able to tell you about the Italian Bartolomeo Eustachi who discovered the tube along with all the bones of the inner ear.  His greatest work, Anatomical Engravings, was finished in 1552 but not published, due to religious restrictions on anatomists until 1714, when it became a best seller, a century after he died!

Anyway, the tube connects the back of the throat with the middle ear, as seen in the diagram.  The pressure either side of the ear drum is usually the same but when we ascend rapidly the pressure inside the ear becomes greater than the cabin pressure and the ear drum is forced outwards.  As we descend the opposite happens with the pressure in the cabin becoming greater than that in the inner ear and the ear drum is pushed inwards.  This affects its ability to move when sound waves hit it and so your hearing become muffled and it might be painful.

The Eustachian is normally closed so to equalise the pressure either side of the ear drum we need to open the tube to allow air in or out.  This action is achieved by swallowing, hence the advice to suck on a sweet, or by yawning which moves the jaw allowing the tube to open.  Holding your nose and blowing forces air up the tube, achieving the same result by a slight less natural route.

Did you know that the back of your throat was connected to your ears?  Does it help explain why some people get ear infections when they have a cold or flu?  Anatomy can explain it all.

Author: Anatomy Fundamentals

Janet Philp has spent a lifetime exploring fitness and wellbeing. Starting in group exercise, travelling through rugby to representing the UK at martial arts before including Yoga, meditation, Budokon and personal instruction. Her passion is anatomical function and educating people to use their bodies to their full potential.

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