When Flying Is Painful, Literally (And What To Do About It)

relieving sinus pressure

The view may be pretty; however, what goes on inside isn’t always so nice. Photo courtesy of r. nial bradshaw via flickr

I’ll admit I’m not the best flier. It’s not that I’m afraid, but that my stomach, sinuses and head seem to freak out when I change altitudes that quickly. Do you know how awkward it is to throw up your entire stomach contents in your airplane seat? I do. Three separate times, actually.

Despite being prone to nausea and migraines in-flight, what happened to me on my most recent plane ride left me seriously terrified. We’d just reached 10,000 feet, and I was reading a book, when suddenly the entire right side of my face went numb. It started with my lips, moving back to my teeth then up to my cheek bones, before reaching my eye and skull for a blinding pain…but only on the right side.

I poked my right lip and it felt like leather, slapped my right cheek and felt nothing. It was as if my dentist was sitting next to me beating me with a hammer and then injecting me with his scary Novocain syringe all over the right side of my face.

My first thought — after my weird dentist fantasy — was that I was 28 years old and having a stroke. I knew it took 3-6 minutes of oxygen not reaching your brain for permanent damage to occur, but I still felt oddly awkward about letting anyone know what was going on. What if they grounded the plane and I ruined everyone’s vacation? But what if I they didn’t ground the plane and my brain literally burst and poured out my ears? This is what I felt like was happening, anyway.

Searching For Answers

Luckily, the plane had Wi-Fi and I was able to consult Google about my current situation. I was literally in so much pain I could barely concentrate on typing, the chatter of the fliers next to me hurting my ears and making me feel sicker.

What I found was comforting — at least in the sense that it didn’t look like I was dying, even though it felt that way. Apparently, I’m not the first one to experience this facial paralysis, which can last from anywhere from minutes to days. According to researchers Drs. Kim Ah-See and Sangeeta Maini, it occurs when pressure in the middle ear increases and presses a facial nerve, leading to a temporary loss of sensation until pressure is normalized. For me, it felt a lot like sinus pressure on steroids, which also wouldn’t have been surprising as I have terrible sinuses and allergies.

relieving sinus pressure

Photo courtesy of r. nial bradshaw via flickr

For me, relieving sinus pressure and pain took about an hour on the ground; however, I was landing in Colorado. While I felt fine in Denver, as I climbed farther above sea level on a drive to Grand Lake it came back with a vengeance, and I spent the ride whimpering in the back of the car. About three hours later the pain had decreased to what felt like an open cavity covered in sugary fudge, only in my mouth area.

This led me to another discovery: some fliers also experience extreme mouth pain when flying because a loose filling or hole in the teeth can allow an air pocket to occur with no place to dispel — not pleasant during extreme pressure changes.

Relieving Sinus Pressure & Pain In-Flight

What saved my trip was a visit to the local pharmacist, who told me to use Simply Saline to keep my nasal passages moist, and take Mucinex D leading up the flight home. I felt better almost instantly. And on the flight home I didn’t experience the tear-inducing pain I had on the way there, although I did feel slight pressure in my sinuses. I’ve also been told by numerous friends to use EarPlanes, which I have since ordered.

I also talked to Dr. Mona Vand, aka The Modern Pharmacist, about the issue, who notes that Sinusitis — swelling and inflammation of the sinus — does have the potential to cause facial numbness and tingling.

“This is because it impacts the infraorbital nerve,” she explaind. “This nerve effects sensations on the lower eye, cheek, and upper lip area. A cure to this problem is to treat the sinusitis. Decongestants such as Pseudoephed could treat this problem.”

For those who experience extreme pressure during and after flying — like me — she recommends taking a decongestant, such as over-the-counter phenylephrine (mild) or behind-the-counter but non-prescription Pseudoephed if it’s intense pain.

She adds, “Another tip is to chew gum throughout the flight. Swallowing frequently can alleviate some of the pressure.”

When Medication Doesn’t Work (Updated!)

Turns out I was not in the clear, as I had thought. The painful numbing sinus issue occurred again on TWO MORE FLIGHTS (ouch!). Despite having awful health insurance with a high $6,600 deductible, I sprang the $250 to see a Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist and the $250 to get a CAT Scan as the pain was unbearable.

It turns out I need surgery.

According to my doctor and soon-to-be surgeon, Dr. Eric Cohen, New York Otolaryngologist, we all have four paranasal sinuses near the nose. The maxillary is the largest, located between the cheeks and teeth around the nose. Apparently, I was “dealt a very bad hand sinus-wise,” as my right maxillary sinus is malformed, protruding into the nasal cavity much more than normal.

Like, much much. When I saw my X-ray, where my sinus looked like a steroid-grown potato, and compared it to a normal sinus, which looked like a heart-shaped quarter, I was alarmed.

Oh, and there’s more. I apparently also have a severe deviated septum, inflamed tissue in all of my facial sinuses, polyp growth in the middle nasal passage and enlarged turbinates, which are spongy sea shell-shaped bones in your breathing passage.

Oy vey.

Most of this is due to pure bad luck with genetics and anatomy. The solution is a bilateral endoscopic sinus surgery, reduction of the inferior turbinates and opening of the sinuses — all of which I’ll be undergoing on August 25, 2015.

Stay tuned for another post update afterward!

Update

Since this blog post I’ve gotten many, many emails from those who have also experienced this weird problem. While I can’t diagnose you and don’t claim to be a doctor, I will say I do not experience this issue at all since my sinus surgery. Sure, the week after is pretty brutal (you can’t blow your nose), and the following weeks you’ll have nose bleeds, but wow was it worth it.

I have crappy health insurance, so I ended up paying well over my deductible for this surgery out of pocket. A lot of money, but so worth it. It’s almost as if I’m breathing for the first time.

How do you deal with bad sinuses, facial numbness and other ailments on flights? Please share in the comments below.

Airplane Accessories For Sinus Sufferers

earplanes

Earplanes

These ear plugs are made to relieve head pressure inflight. Put them on before the cabin doors close and you’ll feel so much better in the air.

saline spray

Saline Spray

After my surgery I make sure to use this every single day, at home and on the road, to clean out my sinuses.

eucalyptus oil

Eucalyptus Oil

I like to dab a few drops on my temples, the crown of my head, on my neck and behind my ears for sinus relief while flying.

21 Comments

  1. This sounds beyond awful! I don’t know how you kept it together – if my face went half-numb on a plane I would definitely have a panic attack! (And, in fact, when I used to have fairly bad anxiety, parts of my face WOULD sometimes go numb, which was terrifying.)

    Sucks that you have to have surgery, but hopefully that will mean no more sinus issues, right??

    1. @Amanda: It was so scary. I literally thought I was having a stroke. I’ve never heard of anyone ever talking about that kind of symptom, so was so odd. Fingers crossed this will be the end of it. I had to cancel a Malaysia trip, but kind of want to go on a practice 1-hour short flight in case the issue isn’t resolved! ha.

    1. @Peter: YES! Tremendous. I feel like a new person. I highly recommend going to a specialist for this, as my GP had told me I had allergies. If it’s what I had, you have some serious sinus issues that need surgery to fix. I would do it again in a heartbeat. If you’re in the New York area shoot me an email and I can give you my doctor’s info. My email is jessie (at) jessieonajourney (dot) com. Best of luck!

  2. Thank you so much for this! yesterday i was on a return flight from Italy when it happened to me and dear lord it was the worst pain i have ever known, we were an hour away from landing but it felt like an eternity, i’m planning a trip to Sweden soon and really hope it doesn’t come back!

    1. @Steph: Eeek. I would definitely go to a specialist and get a CT Scan before getting on a plane again. It happened to me once, then not again, then again, and it was so unbearable. I actually thought I might have to ground the plane. Surgery was the only thing that helped, and when they saw my sinuses through at CT Scan it was very obvious why. In the meantime, try saline sprays and Mucinex D. These helped slightly, but not totally.

      1. Thanks, i have discussed surgery with a GP before as i have problems breathing through my nose due to thick nasal walls (sorry sounds grosse i know) it means i can’t breathe through my nose well not much and i can’t smell much, hopefully it means the GP will go ahead a bit quicker hope you don’t mind me sharing this post around obviously i will make sure to credit you but it really helped, your right though i really does make you fear flying, i normally love it but will be so nervous now especially since i will be on my own for the next trip! Travellers struggling together eh XD

        1. @Steph: Feel free to share wherever 🙂 I honestly would have stopped traveling altogether if I hadn’t gotten that surgery. The pain beforehand was just too intense :/ Hope your issue gets solved soon!

  3. This is the best advice I’ve been able to find on this subject. I nearly thought I would pass out from the excruciating pain I experienced on decent from a flight yesterday. Luckily my friend had a supply of decongestants and nasal spray on hand. After a hot shower, meds and silence I finally was able to fall asleep. The pain continued for nearly 3 hours – ear, teeth, cheek, jaw and radiating to my neck on one side only. Hopelessly searching for answers, you hit the nail on the head. I’m terrified to fly home and am seriously reconsidering my ENT’s surgery recommendation. I have undergone a CAT scan and specialist visit that confirmed a very similar diagnosis. I’m running to the pharmacy immediately to prepare for my flight in 4 days. I’m terrified but will prepare this time. Thank you for sharing!

    1. @Jackie: The surgery takes awhile as you need pre-surgery appointments and then recovery time (you can’t fly for a few weeks after). I would definitely recommend continuing with the nasal spray — I do mine twice per day still — and the decongestants. It also can’t hurt to get some EarPlanes and put them in before the cabin door shuts to relieve some of the pressure. Hope this helps. It truly is one of the most extreme pains 🙁

  4. Hi Jessie – did you experience a head ache with this numbness? Also, how long did it last and did the numbness go away as soon as you reached below 10,000ft?

    Thanks!

    1. @Taylor: Yes, I had a headache. I had an everything ache :/ And it went away almost immediately upon getting back down to the ground, but I would feel slightly “out of it.” Hope this helps!

  5. Ugh, isn’t it just terrible. I landed from my plane ride over and hour ago and I’m still in so much pain. It’s been happening for about 6 months now and it’s unbearable. Every time it feels like something in my face is going to explode. I need to do something for the next time I fly, I can’t deal with the pain. If it happens again I think I’m going to go to the doctor. Your post was very helpful, thank you. Good luck!

  6. Thank you for sharing, you make so many realize they are not alone.
    I thought I would share my motion sickness tip with you since I will be trying your tips.
    When feeling nauseous, tilt your head, like laying on a pillow. The idea is to upset your inner ear fluid. The nausea should subside. This has worked on many flights for me, although your neck could be a little sour by landing.

  7. Thanks for sharing. I have experienced this a couple of times and have still not recovered from my last trip 2 days back. Still having severe pain on my cheek bones.

  8. I feel that I am a little late, but here is my input
    My issues started out pretty minor; a little pain here and there and some blood in the mucous after we reached about 25,000 ft. Early 2016 things seemed to get much worse. My upper left jaw went completely numb and it felt like my head was about to explode. Like you, I quietly sat in my chair thinking: Am I having a stroke? After 3 or 4 minutes, I was still alive and things were not getting worse, so I became hopeful that is was something else. Finally, I could hear air squeezing (like children do with a ballon) and I spit out a ball of bloody mucous into a napkin. I guess that air pressure in my sinus has equalized. August of 2016, I had turbinate reduction surgery. For the next 6 months the only issue I had was a small out of pressure while landing. On a cale of one to 10, this was a 0.5. However, my last 2 flights in March and April 2017, the pain has come back. My ENT is suggesting that I might need a sinoplasty to open the passages a little more. He also mentioned that he wish he had done the balloon sinoplasty when he had me under for the turbinate reduction. (just a note for those considering turbinate reduction)
    I do get allergies this time of year and perhaps these issues have refurned for allergy season and I need to ‘prepare’ for flights better

    1. @Thom: Thanks so much for sharing your story. It’s amazing how little there is on the internet about this issue, meanwhile I’ve had so many readers share similar stories. It’s crazy just how debilitating sinus issues can be. Not going to lie, if I hadn’t had the surgery I NEVER would have flown again. So so so painful.

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