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 your ears won’t equalize.
Your ears start to hurt… you try again. But it’s the same issue.
So, now what?
Ear problems are the number one reason scuba divers pull the plug on a dive. And in extreme cases, stop scuba diving altogether.
Scuba diving is an incredible sport. And we don’t want anything to stop you from exploring the underwater world.
So we’ve put together a complete guide on what happens to your ears when you go scuba diving and how to equalize your ears efficiently.
We’ll share with you a variety of equalization methods, our top tips to help you equalize and more.
Let’s dive right in.
First, let’s take a closer look at your ears…
In order to understand what actually happens to your ears when you go scuba diving, you need to know a little bit about the anatomy of your ears.
We can separate the ear into three main sections:
- Outer ear: Also known as the ear canal.
- Middle ear: An air-filled chamber separated from the outer ear by your eardrum and connected to the back of your throat via the Eustachian tubes.
- Inner ear: Separating the middle ear from the inner ear are two
of the thinnest membranes in the human body, the round and the oval windows. The inner ear is filled with fluid and is responsible for your hearing and balance.
When there’s a pressure difference between these sections, you’ll often start to feel discomfort.
And this is when we need to equalize our ears.
why do I need to equalize my ears when scuba diving?
When you descend the weight of the water above you exerts pressure on your body. This pressure causes the air inside your body’s air spaces to compress. As Boyle’s law states “if the temperature remains constant, the volume of a gas is inversely proportional to the absolute pressure.”
Simply put, the deeper you go, the smaller the volume of air in your body.
But what does this mean for your ears?
As you go deeper the air inside your middle ear compresses creating a vacuum.
Delicate membranes, like the eardrum or round window, can be sucked into the air space causing discomfort and pain.
And if that’s not enough this pressure can rupture blood vessels or one of the membranes inside your ears causing barotrauma (an injury caused from pressure).
Not only is it painful but it’ll also keep you out of the water for a while.
And no one wants that!
Fortunately for us, ear injuries are easily avoidable with the right equalization techniques.
So how can I equalize my ears?
Equalizing your ears requires you to open the normally closed Eustachian tubes. Each Eustachian tube has a one-way valve at the lower end, known as the ‘Eustachian cushion’, which stops contaminants from your nose and throat migrating up into your ears.
Opening the tubes allows higher-pressure air from your throat to enter your middle ear and equalizes the air space.
You equalize your ears several times a day without noticing. When you swallow your soft palate muscles pull your Eustachian tubes open, allowing air from your throat into your middle ears.
That’s why you sometimes hear a faint ‘pop’ sound when you swallow.
Scuba diving subjects the ears to much greater and faster pressure changes than they’re designed to handle. So, you need to give your ears a little help to equalize.
What are the best equalization techniques for scuba diving?
We’ve pulled together the most popular ways to equalize your ears.
Try them out in the field and stick with the method that works best for you. You’ll know it works when you hear a ‘pop’ like sound or the discomfort disappears.
If it’s not working at your current depth, ascend a little, and try again.
Don’t be afraid to switch up your technique.
Just remember to be gentle!
Valsalva Maneuver aka Pinch & Blow Method
This is the most common equalization method. Use your fingers to pinch your nostrils closed, or close them against your mask skirt, and blow gently through your nose. The overpressure in your throat usually forces air up your Eustachian tubes and equalizes the middle ear.
But be careful.
Although the Valsalva Maneuver is the first method most divers learn, it’s not actually the safest.
This method doesn’t activate the muscles which open the Eustachian tubes, so it may not work if the tubes are already locked by a pressure differential.
Plus if you blow too hard or too long you can easily over pressurize the middle ear causing the round or oval windows to rupture.
So, what’s the safest way to equalize your ears?
The safest equalization methods utilize the muscles of your throat to open the tubes rather than using force.
Here are 4 better ways to equalize your ears when scuba diving
Toynbee Maneuver aka Swallow Method
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.
Sometimes just swallowing will work, but pinching your nostrils helps ensure the air makes its way into the middle air and not out your nose!
Lowry Method aka Pinch, blow & swallow.
A combination of the Valsalva and Toynbee. While closing your nostrils, blow and swallow at the same time.
Frenzel Method aka Make a ‘K’ sound
Pinch 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.
Voluntary tubal opening method aka Wiggle the jaw
Tense the muscles of your throat while pushing the jaw forward and down as if starting to yawn. These muscles pull the Eustachian tubes open. Wiggling your jaw side to side can also help.
This method requires a lot of practice, but some divers can learn to control those muscles and hold their tubes open for continuous equalization.
Some divers have pretty good success with letting out a few yawns which will open the Eustachian tubes. Careful to not put other divers to sleep as they can be contagious!
But what if you’ve tried every technique and are still struggling to equalize?
This next section’s for you…
10 Top tips for equalizing Your Ears
If you’re trying scuba diving for the first time, or haven’t dived in a while, it’s very common to find it a little tricky to equalize.
Here are our top tips to help you equalize easily on every scuba dive.
#1 Listen for a ‘pop’
Before you go diving, make sure you can hear a faint ‘pop’ or click sound when you swallow. This small noise tells you that both the eustachian tubes are opening.
#2 Chew gum
Chewing gum before or in between dives can reduce the chance of a block early in the descent. Moving the jaw and increased swallowing helps to warm up the Eustachian tubes.
#3 Descend feet first
When you descend upright air tends to rise in your tubes, and any mucus will move downwards so less force is needed to equalise.
#4 Slow down
Always descend and ascend slowly to give yourself the time to equalise properly. Using a dive computer can help you better track your descent and ascent rate.
#5 Look Up
Tilting your head up extends the Eustachian tubes and can help them open up more easily.
#6 Use a descent line
Using an anchor or mooring line to guide your descent gives you much more control. Without a line, you can sink down much quicker than you realize. You can also grab the line to quickly stop your descent to avoid pain or barotrauma.
#7 Stay ahead
Equalize early and often before you feel discomfort or pain.
#8 Stop if it hurts
Don’t try to push through the pain. Your Eustachian tubes are probably locked shut by the pressure gradient, and the only result will be barotrauma.
If your ears begin to hurt on the descent, ascend a little and try equalizing again.
If you feel pain on the ascent, descend a little to give the expanding air time to work it’s way out.
#9 Avoid tobacco before diving
Smoking irritates the membranes in your airways causing them to produce mucus. This mucus can block the Eustachian tubes making equalizing more difficult.
#10 Keep your mask clear
A little water in your mask or nose can also lead to a build-up of mucus. Make sure your mask fits you properly and you’re clearing any water that does sneak in.
Fed up of leaking rental masks? Check out our guide to the best masks for scuba diving.
And lastly, keep practicing!
The more you dive, the more flexible your ears become, and the easier you’ll be able to equalize.
When do I need to equalize my ears?
Earlier and more often than you think. Most certification agencies recommend equalizing every meter (or few feet) while descending. But it’s different for everyone.
We recommend equalizing early and often before you feel discomfort.
The good news is that the deeper you go, the less you’ll need to equalize.
Another result of Boyle’s law! Remember the greatest pressure change occurs between the surface and the first 10m.
And when you reach your maximum depth, equalize again.
Although the pressure in your middle ear may be so small that you don’t notice it, over time it can gradually cause injury.
Do I need to equalize my ears during the ascent?
When you ascend, the reverse happens. The pressure on your body decreases which causes the air inside your middle ear to expand.
Just ascend slowly and the expanding air will work it’s way out naturally.
You might hear, or feel this happening but the majority of divers do not need to do anything to equalize during an ascent.
If you ascend too fast or dive with blocked sinuses, the expanding air can become trapped. This is known as a reverse block.
A reverse block can be painful, and in a worst-case scenario could burst your eardrum or round window.
If you experience pain during an ascent, stop, descend slightly and continue your ascent slowly to give the trapped air time to work it’s way out.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do my ears feel blocked after diving?
If you’ve felt like your ears were muffled, or filled with water, after diving then you’ve already experienced mild middle ear barotrauma.
Also known as a middle ear squeeze, this is when the pressure imbalance inside the middle ear causes blood vessels to rupture. Fluid and blood then accumulate in the middle ear.
Middle ear barotrauma occurs if you fail to equalize or your Eustachian tubes are blocked due to cold or allergies.
You’ll experience a feeling of water in the ear, reduced hearing, discomfort, and pain immediately after diving. If you’re lucky the fluid will drain by itself but you may need to get it checked out by a physician.
Can I over equalize my ears?
Yes. If you blow too hard and too long against pinched nostrils you can over pressurise your middle ear which can cause inner ear barotrauma.
When you force too much air up the Eustachian tubes the oval or more commonly the round window can rupture. Fluid from the inner ear can leak into your middle ear and completely mess with your balance. You might also experience hearing loss and loud ringing in the ear (tinnitus).
No wonder we need to be gentle when we equalize!
Can I burst my eardrum scuba diving?
If you fail to equalize your ears and continue downwards the pressure imbalance can cause your eardrum to rupture. And trust us, you’ll feel it!
As you descend there’ll be a sharp pain as the pressure inside your middle ear pulls on your eardrum. When the eardrum tears the pain will suddenly stop and water will rush inside.
It may cause vertigo and we all know that is not a good thing when you’re underwater.
Most eardrums will heal by themselves over a few weeks but it’s best to get some medical advice to avoid infections or other complications.
What happens if I dive with a cold?
When you have a cold or other congestion, your Eustachian tubes become blocked with mucus and you will struggle to equalize your ears.
By now, you should know this can cause you a boatload of trouble.
Even if you do manage to equalize your ears during the descent, you may have trouble on the way back up as the expanding air can get trapped causing a reverse block.
Can you dive with an ear injury or barotrauma?
OK, so you messed up on your first dive of your trip. You ignored the pain in your ears and now you’ve got middle ear barotrauma. Your ears feel ‘full’ and you can’t hear that well.
But you feel okay and can equalize. Do you continue to dive for the rest of the trip you saved so hard for?
Some divers do, but they’re risking permanent hearing loss or, even worse, balance.
As well as a risk of infection, you can’t be sure you haven’t caused other damage to your inner ear at the same time.
All medical advice recommends you get out of the water and stay out until it clears up.
Do Freedivers Equalize?
Yep! Because their air supply is limited compares to scuba divers, they are some of the most effective and quick equalizers out there.
You’re now an expert on why we need to equalize our ears when scuba diving and exactly how to do it safely.
Equipped with all this knowledge you’ll be able to beat the squeeze and equalize like a pro!
Go try out some of our tips on your next dive.
Let us know how they work for you in the comments.