The term "barometric pressure" is often used interchangeably with the terms “air pressure” and “atmospheric pressure,” and refers to the force exerted on you by the weight of tiny air particles, according to NASA. If you’re in a low-pressure area, there’s less atmospheric mass and thus less force. In a high-pressure area, you have more atmospheric mass and thus more force. When your elevation rises, you have less overlying atmospheric mass, meaning that air pressure decreases, advises Universe Today. Low air pressure can affect your ears.
Popping or Pain
Your ears may “pop” or have a painful sensation as you ascend to higher elevations that have less pressure or when the atmospheric pressure decreases because of weather changes. Your pain is caused by the unequal forces between your outer and inner ear regions, according to Universe Today. In essence, the pressure outside your ears goes down before your ears are able to acclimatize, causing a pressure imbalance. The pressure inside your ears becomes too high in relation to the pressure outside.
A change in barometric pressure can cause ear barotrauma, sometimes called barotitis. This is trauma to your inner ear, middle ear or eardrum due to barometric pressure changes, according to otolaryngologist Mark C. Loury of Fort Collins, Colorado. Here’s how it happens: Your eustachian tubes open every time you swallow and equalize air pressure across your eardrum. If you descend from a high elevation without swallowing, the lower barometric pressure behind your eardrums remains while pressure on the outside of your eardrums increases. This makes for a relative vacuum behind your eardrums, similar to sucking on a straw and having a collapse of the straw’s side wall. If you swallow before the vacuum becomes too great, your collapsed eustachian tubes open and equalize pressure across your eardrums. If you swallow too late, the vacuum keeps your eustachian tube walls collapsed. As your descent continues, the wall-to-wall contact of the tubes gets firmer, the vacuum increases and ear pain happens. Fluid may be sucked out of your middle ear’s membrane lining, which causes bloody plasma fluid to fill space behind your eardrums. This can rupture membrane structures inside your inner ear, according to Loury.
Anything that narrows your eustachian tubes, such as allergies or upper respiratory problems, makes equalization harder. Swallowing and yawning frequently promote eustachian tube opening and helps equalize pressure. You also can try plugging your nose and blowing out, letting just a slight bit of air escape your nose to increase air pressure around your eustachian tube openings, Loury advises.
If you have Meniere's syndrome, an inner ear abnormality that can lead to vertigo, dizziness and a sensation of pressure in your ear, your ears may not be able to compensate for pressure changes as well someone without the condition. Changes in barometric pressure may make symptoms worse.
According to the Washington University School of Medicine's Otolarynology Department, there’s no scientific explanation for this phenomenon. Your inner ear is fluid-filled, and fluids are not compressible; in theory that means there’s no reason a change in barometric pressure would aggravate your symptoms. However, your body has other pressure-sensitive systems that are involved in normal blood volume maintenance. Such systems release hormones that affect kidney function and regulate your overall blood volume. With Meniere’s, your ear may be sensitive to blood electrolyte changes generated by your kidneys, or to the hormones that affect kidney function. That, in some way, may worsen symptoms. Research into this theory is ongoing, reports Washington University.