Air Pressure & Sinus Headaches


The problem you speak of results from a change in atmospheric pressure that occurs as an aircraft changes altitude. As demonstrated by the Aerospaceweb.org Atmospheric Properties Calculator, the pressure of the atmosphere decreases with higher altitude. Commercial aircraft cabins are pressurized to maintain an internal pressure no less than that found at 8,000 ft (2,438 m). As the aircraft prepares to land and descends from its cruise altitude below 8,000 ft, the internal cabin pressure begins to rise. The cabin pressure continues to increase until landing to equalize the internal pressure with that of the external atmosphere.

Changes in atmospheric properties with altitude
Changes in atmospheric properties with altitude

Just as the air pressure outside and inside the plane must equalize as the plane descends, so too must the air pressure inside and outside your head. The problem you describe sounds like something is preventing those pressures from equalizing. The pain you describe is most often caused by a blockage of the sinuses that prevents the higher pressure air outside your head from entering.

Many others, including myself, also experience this problem, but usually only when afflicted with a head cold or other form of sinus congestion. This congestion prevents the pressures inside and outside a person's head from equalizing, so the head is essentially being squeezed by the greater air pressure building up outside it. In my case, I feel intense pain building up on my eardrums. Under normal circumstances, I follow the classic methods of chewing gum or "popping my ears" to relieve the pressure, but these measures have no effect when my sinuses are congested.

This problem can become very serious and may lead to injury. I have even heard of extreme cases of eardrums rupturing after experiencing this cycle of decreasing and increasing pressures repeatedly, as during several connecting flights over a short period of time. I recommend you visit a doctor to see if you may have a sinus problem and if there is any way to relieve it. Dr. Bob Leckridge, for example, suggests using decongestant nose drops 30 minutes prior to takeoff and again prior to landing to help alleviate the sinus pressure.
- answer by Jeff Scott, 29 January 2006

Update!

I recently had a head cold while flying and have always suffered severe pain in my ears in the past. However, I followed the advice mentioned above and am happy to report that I had no trouble at all. I took a decongestant pill about an hour before the flight and used a nasal spray about 30 minutes before both takeoff and landing. These medications kept my head clear enough that I had no difficulty with the increasing air pressure.
- answer by Jeff Scott, 3 January 2007


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