If you’ve been dealing with a blocked ear feeling for a long time, this article is the one you wish you’d have found a long time ago. And you’ll wish even more that someone told you about this sooner. Almost everybody gets a blocked ear feeling from time to time. Like you’re up in an airplane or like you’ve got water in your ear and your ears just won’t pop with the pressure. And sometimes, yes, it can actually be downright painful! Unfortunately, when that blocked ear feeling sticks around for hours or days at a time, that is a sign that something is wrong.
As a general rule, any symptom like a blocked ear that doesn’t go away within three days will likely not just go away on its own at all. And if it does, it will usually come back again later and evolve into something a little worse.
So if you have a blocked ear feeling, you’ve probably gone onto Google first and read that it would have something to do with a viral infection in your inner ear. So you go to your GP and they say that everything looks normal. Now what? Now you might be feeling like you’re at a dead-end because even though you know that you aren’t going to die from a blocked ear, it’s still super aggravating and may even be affecting your hearing, your balance, or giving you a headache.
So you do a little more Google research and try different therapies like ear candling, drops and so forth to help with what could just be a wax build-up. And you hold your breath and nose and try to expel the air to get your ears to pop, but that blocked feeling still just doesn’t go away. Usually doing all these things. However, it’s when that doesn’t work - when the sensation just does not go away on its own naturally or even with medication - that you need to find another explanation and another solution for what is causing your blocked ear feeling.
So, in this article, what we’re going to show you is another explanation for what causes a blocked ear feeling that involves your eustachian tube, your TMJ, and the top vertebrae in your neck: the atlas (C1). Because if it turns out that these things are what is actually causing your blocked ear feeling, there may be a novel natural solution for you.
The Eustachian Tube and Blocked Ear Causes
The Eustachian tube is what allows your inner ear to maintain air pressure equilibrium with the surrounding environment. It is regulated by a few muscles in particular including the tensor tympani, tensor veli palatini, levator veli palatinoi, and the salpingopharyngeus. Four muscles with fancy names. So what?
The point is that the muscles in your body never ever do anything unless they are commanded by the particular nerve that supplies them. Therefore, if you should ever have tight muscles - especially if they are on the inside of your skull! - it is because there must be irritation of an associated nerve.(And no, it does not mean that you necessarily have a brain tumor as we’ll show you shortly).
Two of the muscles are controlled by the Trigeminal Nerve (Cranial Nerve V), two of the muscles are controlled by the Vagus Nerve (Cranial Nerve X) … but all four of the muscles send their sensory information back to the brain via branches of the Trigeminal Nerve. Now, let’s think about this for a moment. Let’s say that someone was poking you in your arm. What are you likely going to do (besides smacking them)? You will contract your muscles and pull away. Similarly, if something so happens to be affecting the sensory transmission or processing of sensory information in your brain from the muscles that regulate your Eustachian tube, then the natural response that your brain will make causes those muscles to tighten.
It is a case where your body is playing a trick on your brain, but where the consequences are very real. And in this particular case, we are talking about muscles that regulate your Eustachian tube, and voila (!) we have a blocked ear feeling. What I hope you realise is that the process we’ve just described has absolutely nothing to do with fluid or a virus or other pathology of your inner ear. What we’re talking about is nerve and muscle issues, which are physical problems. Therefore, when it comes to finding a solution for a blocked ear feeling, it means that all the medications in the world may not solve the problem unless the underlying cause of the blocked ear is addressed.
The TMJ and Blocked Ear Causes
Now we need to look at what can cause those nerves and muscles of your Eustachian tube to become dysfunctional in the first place. What I want you to do is to stick your fingers in your ears. Not very deep, just enough to block your hearing. Now, start moving your jaw up and down. Can you feel that movement? That is your temporomandibular joint (TMJ), and it is actually located just in front of your ear canal. Now, here’s the thing: if you have a mechanical problem with the alignment or how your TMJ is moving, it can actually slip ever so slightly backward, which puts pressure on the nerves, and may even block your ear itself not too dissimilar from what it would feel like when you stick your fingers in your ears.
Plus your TMJ contains nerve fibres inside that, you guessed it, go to the exact same processing centre of your brain via the exact same nerves that supply your inner ear. So, in terms of what may be causing the nerves of your inner ear to cause your Eustachian tube to constrict, it can actually be because you have a TMJ problem. Now, you might be wondering how a TMJ problem can appear out of the blue. Well, unless you have a physical injury, it doesn’t. It is usually a very gradual process of slippage that occurs over a long period of time until the moment arrives when your muscles and joints just can’t compensate anymore.
Consider the example of an eyelash that gets caught in your eye. It's only 0.15mm thick, and yet it can be extremely uncomfortable. Well, if your TMJ slips only 0.15mm backward, guess what? It can cause the same types of problems. So now that we’ve come to look at the TMJ as a potential cause for a blocked ear feeling, now we have to look at what causes the TMJ to become dysfunctional and misalign in the first place. Here there are a few possibilities, and depending on which one (or which combination) you may have is where you may need different types of treatment to solve your blocked ear feeling.
1. It’s your teeth. The alignment of your teeth from a dental perspective can actually impact the way that your jaw bone sits relative to your upper palate (aka maxillary bone). If this type of problem is what is causing your TMJ to misalign, it means that you may need to work with a very particular type of dental specialist to help with the problem. Sometimes it is as simple as prescribing a splint, which helps to decompress your TMJ. Other times, it takes a lot more work and may require a complete remodel.
2. It’s your neck. Why your neck? It is because the muscles that regulate how your jaw moves are influenced by the vertebrae in your upper neck. Namely two vertebrae at the base of your skull are known as the atlas (C1) and axis (C2). Remember that is it the nerves that control how your muscles work? Well, if you have a problem that is affecting how the muscles that control the position of your jaw, then that problem can have a knockoff effect, which is what ends up causing problems with your Eustachian tube and ends up causing the same type of blocked ear feeling.
So you can get the same end result - the blocked ear feeling - but how you got there was completely different! This is the reason why it is so important to get the right assessment with the right qualified professional who knows the difference. Even if they are not the one person who can fix the problem for you, they are only one degree of separation away from getting you to the right person who can help you.
The Atlas and Blocked Ear Causes
When it comes to the alignment and movement of the joints in your upper neck, we are talking about vertebrae that are just as sensitive and have the exact same impact on nerve function as the TMJ. The major difference here is that your neck is subjected to way more stress and potential for physical injury than your TMJ routinely would be. Think of all the physical ways that you traumatise your neck on a daily basis:
Let alone if you’ve ever experienced physical injuries like car accidents, whiplash injuries, or sports concussions. On this note, we should point out that even low-impact injuries - even if you don’t experience any bruising, bleeding, or broken bones - can still cause significant injuries. Remember what we said about small things accumulating over a period of time. The same thing goes with injuries that affect the structure, alignment, and motion of your atlas and axis vertebrae.
If the neutral position of these vertebrae is ever shifted even a fraction of a millimetre, over time, this stress can accumulate. So it may be that you don’t develop symptoms until 5, 10, or 20 years after you experienced that original injury. As a result, you never realise that it was a past event that set things into motion so that you are now experiencing a blocked ear feeling.
I sincerely hope that this all makes sense to you. It is simply a logical progression. And that is why it is important for anyone who experiences a blocked ear feeling to consider the full array of causes - including past physical events - that could be showing up now. Otherwise, you can keep taking all the ear medications and seeing all the specialists, but if they are trying to provide a solution for the wrong cause, you aren’t going to get very far. Where does this now leave us?
Hopefully, you have a much better appreciation for what causes a blocked ear feeling from a physical perspective. If so, then you may be wondering what you can do about it. As we said earlier, we may not have all of the answers, but we are very familiar with the underlying conditions that cause a blocked ear feeling, and thus can help you to find the solutions that we are looking for.
Our practice, Atlas Health, is the premier upper cervical spinal healthcare centre in Australia that focuses on conditions of the upper neck (the C1 atlas and C2 axis vertebrae) and the nerve system. Our principal is Dr. Jeffrey Hannah, who is a Blair upper cervical-specific chiropractor. He is a published author and leader in the field of specific upper cervical care. Unlike general chiropractic, the Blair Technique does not use any spinal manipulations, twisting, or stretching. Instead, it is a personalised and precision-based approach that uses specific neurological testing and advanced diagnostic imaging in order to calculate the exact direction and degree of correction that you need in order to get the best chance of results possible with the least amount of force an intervention. To schedule a 15-minute no-obligation consultation, click the Contact Us link on this page, or call us direct at 07 3188 9329.
Our office is located in North Lakes (north Brisbane) to provide care for the greater Brisbane and Sunshine Coast communities, but also for people around Australia.
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