Our ears serve us well. These complex little organs are responsible for some of our most important functions.
They act as satellite dishes to help capture and funnel those sounds through our middle ear to our brains to process and interpret.
They also house a complex network of nerve endings and cells that make hearing possible.
Our ears also have a role to play when it comes to balance.
Without the inner ear’s vestibular system, we would spend more time falling than walking.
But our ears are also delicate. They’re prone to infections and blockages from earwax buildup.
Sometimes, they even sound like they’re holding a bowl of Rice Krispies — crackle, pop!
But, should this crackling sound be a cause of concern? Stick around as we discuss some of the causes of crackling in the ear and why you could be hearing them.
Crackling Noise in the Ear
Maybe you’ve experienced it before, waking up one morning to the strange sound of crackling while you yawn.
Maybe you heard it while swallowing, talking, or simply moving your head.
But crackling is only one way to describe the sound. Sometimes the crackling can sound more like a popping, like the sound of tiny bubble wrap popping in your ear.
The sound of a crackling ear can be quite alarming upon first hearing it — and slightly odd.
Several conditions could contribute to the crackling sound; let’s look at the most common.
What Can Cause Crackling in Your Ears?
Numerous conditions could contribute to crackling in your ears; some are more serious than others. But the following are the most common reasons you could be experiencing crackling noises in your ears.
Earwax Buildup and Impaction
Aside from being a little gross, earwax is quite important.
Earwax is part of the ear’s self-cleaning ability. It helps lubricate the eardrum and ear canals to help ward off ear infections.
Earwax results from secretions from glands in the outer ear canal. Under normal conditions, earwax simply exists on its own.
Oddly enough, this actually comes as a result of chewing.
The jaw motion helps move earwax from the eardrum to the ear’s opening. It dries and falls out from there.
Sometimes earwax doesn’t make it out of the ear naturally on its own.
Over time this can cause a blockage. This blockage can be made worse by placing items into the ear.
According to the Hearing Loss Association, items like earbuds, earplugs, and even hearing aids can contribute to excess earwax buildup.
Furthermore, using items like cotton swabs to probe your ear for wax can be quite harmful.
Eventually, the impaction of earwax can cover the eardrum and contribute to the ear crackling or popping noise in the ear as your jaw moves from yawning or chewing. Impaction of earwax can also cause:
- Ear pain and discomfort
- Itchiness in the ear
- A feeling of fullness in the ear
- Partial hearing loss or muffled hearing
Eustachian Tube Dysfunction (ETD)
Eustachian tubes are tiny, narrow ear tubes that connect the middle ear to your sinuses at the back of your nose and upper throat. Each ear has one tube.
The eustachian tubes have many roles, including:
- Drawing excess fluid from the middle ear
- Helping to prevent middle ear infection
These tubes prevent fluid and air pressure from building up in the ear.
They help equalize middle ear pressure, ensuring the pressure behind the eardrum is the same as outside pressure.
Clogging of Eustachian Tubes
Under normal conditions, the eustachian tubes remain closed and only open when we yawn or swallow.
Sometimes these tubes can become clogged or blocked or not open and close correctly. This condition is called eustachian tube dysfunction (ETD).
ETD can have numerous causes, including sinus infections and inflammation from seasonal allergies, colds, or the flu.
ETD is a common condition, affecting over four percent of the adult population — over 11 million people.
This clogging or blockage of the eustachian tubes can contribute crackling sound in the ear.
Ear discomfort, muffled hearing, and the feeling of fullness in the ears are also common symptoms.
Temporomandibular Joint Disorders
Another potential culprit for ear crackling is a condition known as temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder.
TMJ refers to a group of disorders that involve dysfunction of the joint and muscles in the jaw. Pain is the primary symptom.
The temporomandibular joint acts as a hinge and attaches your jawbone to your skull on both sides of your head, just in front of the ears.
TMJ disorders can have many causes, but the most common is an injury to the joint or deterioration of the cartilage in the joint. Aside from pain, other common symptoms of TMJ disorder include:
- Stiffness in the jaw muscles and joint
- Limited movement or motion of the jaw
- Clicking or popping of the jaw
It is not uncommon to hear a crackling, popping, or clicking noise in the ear when experiencing a jaw muscle disorder. However, these noises may have nothing to do with the ears.
Acute Otitis Media
Acute otitis media (AOM) is an infection of the middle ear.
After upper respiratory infection, AOM is the second most common pediatric diagnosis in hospital emergency departments.
This condition can occur at any age, but younger children are much more susceptible.
AOM is most commonly seen in children between six and 24 months.
For adults, symptoms of AOM include ear pain, muffled hearing, and feelings of fullness in the ear.
Since AOM is a middle ear infection, it can also lead to fluid buildup in the ear from inflammation.
This fluid can accumulate in the middle ear and block the small eustachian tubes, contributing to conditions like ETD. A byproduct of this could be crackling noises in the ear.
Middle Ear Myoclonus
In short, middle ear myoclonus (MEM) is a type of tinnitus.
Tinnitus is often described as a ringing, buzzing, whooshing, or hissing in the ear. MEM is a rare type of tinnitus that causes muscle spasms in the ear, specifically the stapedius and tensor tympani muscles.
These small muscles help send vibrations to the middle and inner ear from the eardrum and ossicle bones.
These small spasms of the muscles, specifically the stapedius, can produce a sound in the ear that may sound like crackling.
Ménière’s disease is a balance disorder that affects the inner ear.
This condition is caused by an abnormality in the inner, specifically the labyrinth. This abnormality can cause fluid buildup and lead to issues with balance, dizziness, and vertigo.
While deafness is rare, some degree of hearing loss is possible with Ménière’s disease. Other symptoms may include feeling fullness in the ear and tinnitus. Crackling or popping noises in the ear are not uncommon.
What Are the Treatment Options for Crackling Ears?
Treatment for crackling ears will depend on the cause of the crackling.
If the crackling noise affects your quality of life, the best course of action would be to seek medical advice from a healthcare professional.
This is especially true if you’re experiencing symptoms like pain, pressure, headaches, and a crackling sound.
Healthcare professionals can advise on potential causes, administer a hearing test, and offer treatment options.
For example, they may prescribe antibiotics for ear infections or perform an earwax removal procedure. Some conditions like TMJ disorders may require muscle relaxants or more involved surgical interventions.
Some Home Remedies
In most cases, crackling noises in the ear will resolve on their own. However, there are some things you can try at home.
- Earwax removal and ear drops. Ear drops may help soften earwax, making it easier to remove. Remember to avoid cotton swabs.
- Pop your ears. A simple swallow or yawn can help unclog your ears and help equalize pressure in your middle ears.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) solutions. In some cases, OTC medications like decongestants and anti-inflammatory medications can help reduce congestion and inflammation in the ear. This could relieve the cause of the crackling.
Our ears are small complex organs with some of the body’s biggest responsibilities.
But, they are also susceptible to things like infection and blockage.
These conditions can lead to some strange noises within the ear – crackling being one.
In most cases, there is no reason to fear the crackle, and plenty of home remedies help alleviate the annoying noise.
However, if the crackling noise comes with pain, pressure, or worse, it may be time to consult your physician, who can help reveal the culprit of the crackle.
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