Medical Q&As

Ears - pressure middle ear?

While on holiday in March I went for a short scuba diving trip but I experienced discomfort in my left ear and didn't stay under water for very long. A couple of weeks later I flew home on a long haul flight and again experienced discomfort and pain in my left ear. I went to see a doctor when I got home but was told that this was natural and should clear up. Seven months later it still feels like my left ear has yet to 'pop' fully. Thankfully I have no problems with hearing but would just like get my old ear back. What could be wrong?

You describe two scenarios, scuba diving and a long haul plane journey, both of which can result in pressure effects on the middle ear. The lack of popping that you describe is due to unequal pressures existing on either side of your eardrum. The eardrum is a thin partition that separates the outer ear from the middle ear. In the two scenarios you describe the air in your middle ear is at ground level atmospheric pressure. When you dive under water the pressure in the outer ear is greater than the pressure in the middle ear. Similarly when you fly the atmospheric pressure in the cabin of the aircraft is greater than the pressure in the middle ear. Therefore scuba diving and flying replicate the same conditions of unequal pressures across the eardrum. This results in discomfort and sometimes it can be quite painful. Hearing is also temporarily reduced. When you pop your ears the pressures equalise on either side of the eardrum and normal hearing is restored. The sensation of pressure and pain also disappears. I suspect that you may have a problem with fluid in your middle ear or a possible malfunction in your Eustachian tube, which connects the back of the throat with the middle ear. I think that you should return to your GP and have your ears examined.