Ears & Diving: Equalize the Right Way
No more bad dives because of your ears!
Every diver needs to equalize ear pressure at the beginning of a dive. Many instinctively know how to make their ears pop to clear them. It doesn’t always work though.
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Don’t let your ears ruin your dives
You’ve just started your first dive of the day. Everything is going great! You pinch your nose and blow to equalize your ears, but nothing happens. You try again, but same issue.
Your ears starts to hurt…you try again but it’s the same.
So what now?
Accent and end the dive or push on?
It’s time to learn how to equalise the right way!
According to a survey* we did, we discovered that:
- 89% of divers don’t equalize the correct way
- 29% of divers had to stay out of the water for weeks or months due to problems caused by equalizing
- 6.3% of divers have gotten permanent ear damage due to problems equalizing ear pressure
That’s right, you might be Equalizing the wrong way!
The real issue is that the way most of us thought to equalize ears, which happens to be the most common method, is the wrong way to do it.
It’s the Valsalva Maneuver: Pinch your nostrils and blow through your nose. The resulting overpressure in your throat usually forces air up your Eustachian tubes. In a airplane or during a dive it can create the familiar pop in your ears and relieve pressure.
How come it works if it’s the wrong way? It works perfectly fine as long as you keep the tubes open ahead of the pressure changes. However, if you do not equalize your ears early or often enough, the pressure differential can force the soft tissues together, closing the ends of the tubes. Forcing air against these soft tissues just locks them shut.
5 Better ways to Equalize Your Ears
1. Toynbee Maneuver – Pinch Your Nose and Swallow
With your nostrils pinched or blocked against your mask skirt, swallow. Swallowing pulls open your Eustachian tubes while the movement of your tongue, with your nose closed, compresses air against them.
2. Lowry Technique – Pinch Your Nose, Blow and Swallow
A combination of Valsalva and Toynbee: while closing your nostrils, blow and swallow at the same time.
3. Edmonds Technique – Pinch Your Nose and Blow and Push Your Jaw Forward
While tensing the soft palate (the soft tissue at the back of the roof of your mouth) and throat muscles and pushing the jaw forward and down, do a Valsalva maneuver.
4. Frenzel Maneuver – Pinch Your Nose and Make the Sound of the Letter “K”
Close your nostrils, and close the back of your throat as if straining to lift a weight. Then make the sound of the letter “K.” This forces the back of your tongue upward, compressing air against the openings of your Eustachian tubes.
5. Voluntary Tubal Opening – Tense Your Throat and Push Your Jaw Forward
Tense the muscles of the soft palate and the throat while pushing the jaw forward and down as if starting to yawn. These muscles pull the Eustachian tubes open. This requires a lot of practice, but some divers can learn to control those muscles and hold their tubes open for continuous equalization.
When to Equalize
Sooner, and more often, than you might think. Most recommend equalizing every two feet (.6 meters) of descent, but often that’s too late. At a fairly slow descent rate of 60 ft (18.288 m) per minute, that’s an equalization every two seconds. Many divers descend much faster and should be equalizing constantly.
The good news: as you go deeper, you’ll have to equalize less often!
10 Quick tips to make equalizing easier
1. Listen for the “pop”
Before you even board the boat, make sure that when you swallow you hear a “pop” or “click” in both ears. This tells you both Eustachian tubes are open.
2. Start early
Several hours before your dive, begin gently equalizing your ears every few minutes. “This has great value and is said to help reduce the chances of a block early on descent,” says Dr. Ernest S. Campbell, webmaster of “Diving Medicine Online.” “Chewing gum between dives seems to help,” adds Dr. Campbell.
3. Equalize at the surface
“Pre-pressurizing” at the surface helps get you past the critical first few feet of descent, where you’re often busy with dumping your BCD and clearing your mask. It may also inflate your Eustachian tubes so they are slightly bigger. The guide here is to pre-pressurize only if it seems to help you and to pressurize gently.
4. Descend feet first
Air tends to rise up your Eustachian tubes, and fluid-like mucus tends to drain downward. Studies have shown a Valsalva maneuver requires 50 percent more force when you’re in a head-down position than head-up.
5. Look up
Extending your neck tends to open your Eustachian tubes.
6. Use a descent line
Pulling yourself down an anchor or mooring line helps control your descent rate more accurately. Without a line, your descent rate will probably accelerate much more than you realize. A line also helps you stop your descent quickly if you feel pressure, before barotrauma has a chance to occur.
7. Stay ahead
Equalize often, trying to maintain a slight positive pressure in your middle ears.
8. Stop if it hurts
Don’t try to push through pain. Your Eustachian tubes are probably locked shut by pressure differential, and the only result will be barotrauma. If your ears begin to hurt, ascend a few feet and try equalizing again.
9. Avoid tobacco and alcohol
Both tobacco smoke and alcohol irritate your mucus membranes, promoting more mucus that can block your Eustachian tubes.
10. Keep your mask clear
Water up your nose can irritate your mucus membranes, which then produce more of the stuff that clogs.
Learning to equalize while diving is something we can take for granted. Our ears are full of amazing components that need to be treated properly. If you experience any issues with your ears before diving, talk to some professionals. Or ask your doctor. Ask him about barotraumatics.