Ear barotrauma occurs when the pressure inside your ear -- on the interior side of your eardrum -- is higher than it is outside. Flying and underwater diving are the most common causes, because they're the two times most of us find ourselves dealing with pressure outside the normal range. However, if you've ever climbed or driven up a steep hill, your ears may have popped, just like when you're on a flight.
That popping sensation means your eardrum is trying to equalize those levels so the pressure is the same on both sides of the eardrum. You can avoid or ease this painful experience with the common go-to tricks, like chewing gum and yawning during your ascent, and by making sure you and your children are awake during ascent and descent to help your body make these equalizations as easily as possible. But because this is a process your body has to do for itself, there's only so much you can do.
Think about the pain of sinus pressure when you have a cold, for example. That's due to a similar problem, only instead of a sudden change in pressure outside your body, it's an internal pressure buildup due to the obstructions of mucus and inflammation. In fact, doctors recommend the same preventive treatment for ear barotrauma as this more familiar type of pressure: A decongestant, taken according to the label, throughout your flight, will help your body's equalization procedures move as quickly and efficiently as possible.