- Why Do I Need To Equalize?
- The Ear
- How to Equalize Ear Pressure
- 10 Top Tips
How to equalize ear pressure is one of the first things you learn when you’re a beginner scuba diver.
Sometimes, you’re on your first dive of the day, you jump in the water, pinch your nose, blow, and…
What do you do now?! You’ve tried everything and your ears just won’t pop! Do you carry on and hurt your ears? Or pull the plug on a dive? Ear problems even cause some people to stop scuba diving entirely.
Well, we’ve got some handy tips to help you make the most of your dive and equalize your ear pressure with ease… And when to know it’s time to get out of the water.
Let’s dive in.
why do I need to equalize my ears when scuba diving?
As soon as you descend under the water when you scuba dive, the weight of the water above you exerts pressure on your body. Most of your body is liquid, and so it can’t be compressed.
However, this pressure does compress the air spaces in your body such as your sinuses and ears.
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?
Let’s take a closer look.
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.
The purpose of equalization in diving is to match the pressure in your ears to the surrounding water pressure by moving gas from your throat to your ears via the eustachian tubes. Most of the time, this happens with little to no effort but when these tubes are blocked, it can be more difficult.
As you go deeper and the pressure on your eardrum increases, the air inside your middle ear compresses. This creates a vacuum that can rupture the delicate structures like the eardrum, round or oval windows, and blood vessels. This kind of injury is called barotrauma, or an injury caused by pressure.
Barotrauma ranges from mild to severe. One example is middle-ear barotrauma, which can be as serious as a burst eardrum or as mild as an earache when ascending in an aircraft.
Not only can barotrauma be excruciatingly painful, but they can keep you out of the water for a while – even permanently. This is why it is so important that we know how to equalize ear pressure!
How to equalize ear pressure
Equalizing your ears requires you to open the Eustachian tubes that are normally closed. Each Eustachian tube has a one-way valve at the lower end, which is known as the Eustachian cushion. This cushion stops contaminants from your nose and throat migrating up into your ears and causing infection.
Opening the tubes allows higher-pressure air from your throat to enter your middle ear and equalizes the air space.
You actually equalize your ears several times a day without even noticing! When you swallow, your soft palate muscles pull your Eustachian tubes open. This allows air from your throat into your middle ears, which is why you sometimes hear a faint ‘pop’ sound when you swallow.
When we scuba dive, the ears are subject to bigger pressure changes faster than they are designed to handle. Fortunately, they can still cope just fine – we just need to give them a little helping hand to equalize!
techniques for Ear equalization
Every body’s anatomy is unique, and our ears are no different. That means that not all equalization techniques will work for everyone.
We’ve pulled together the most popular ear equalization techniques. Try them all out on an easy dive and see what works for you! You’ll know it works when you hear a faint “pop” or the feeling of pressure in your ears reduces.
If it’s not working at your current depth, ascend a little, and try again.
Remember, don’t be afraid to switch up your technique and be gentle!
1. 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.
Although the Valsalva Maneuver is the first method most divers learn, it’s not necessarily 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 i.e. you’re already under significant pressure.
Plus, it is easy to blow too hard or too long over pressurize the middle ear, causing the round or oval windows to rupture.
Check out the technique in the video below:
2. Toynbee Maneuver aka Swallow Method
This one is pretty self-explanatory!
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!
Some people find this method difficult due to the compressed-air induced dry mouth that many divers experience.
3. Lowry Method aka Pinch, Blow & Swallow Method
A combination of the Valsalva and Toynbee. While closing your nostrils, blow and swallow at the same time.
Whilst very effective, it can be hard to execute for many!
4. Frenzel Method aka Make The ‘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.
5. Voluntary Tubal Opening Method aka Jaw Wiggling
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. For this reason, it is popular amongst freedivers who do quick descents.
6. Yawn Method
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!
10 Top tips for equalizing Your Ears
Have you tried all of these techniques but that feeling of pressure in your ears just won’t go away? Or maybe you’re having trouble equalizing one ear?
Then this section is for you.
Whether you’re trying scuba diving for the first time or you’re a seasoned pro, it’s very common to find it a little tricky to equalize. It can also be a problem for some divers on liveaboards, as multiple dives a day can “tire out” the tissues in the ear.
Here are our top tips for how to equalize ear pressure easily on every single dive.
1. Listen For The 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. Slow Down
Be sure to stay calm and descend at a slow, measured rate. A dive computer can help you keep track of your descent rate. remaining calm is vital. Stressing about not equalizing will only make it worse. Take a deep breath, slowly ascend a couple of meters and try again.
3. Use a descent line
Descending down a line can help you control your descent and give you a feeling of security as you descend. It is also easier to know when you’ve ascended a couple of meters, as well as being able to halt your descent by grabbing the line if your ears begin to hurt.
4. Stay Ahead
Equalizing before you feel any pressure at all is vital. Some divers even do it on the surface. Proper equalization shouldn’t hurt at all, so begin equalizing before you feel a thing and continue to do so every meter until you reach your maximum depth.
5. Don’t Force It
If it hurts – stop! don’t force it as you can really damage your ears. Ascend a few meters and try again. Continue to ascend slowly until you can fully equalize your ears before slowly descending again.
6. Blow your nose
Clearing out all the mucus from your sinuses and throat before your dive can help to ensure that your tubes are clear. Be as gross as you need to and don’t be shy – whoever said scuba diving wasn’t glamorous!
7. Feet first
Descending with your feet down means that air will move to the top of your tubes and any mucus will move down with gravity, ensuring that you don’t need to use as much pressure to equalize and reducing the chance of issues.
8. look up
Tilting your head back to look at the surface can help to open the eustachian tubes. This effect can also be achieved by slowly and deliberately leaning the head to one side and then the other.
9. Chew Gum
The jaw movement and increased swallowing associated with chewing gum are thought to “warm-up” the eustachian tubes, so chewing gum between dives can be beneficial. We don’t recommend chewing gum during a dive due to the choking hazard – also it would be a nightmare to clean out of your regulators!
10. Avoid Tobacco
Smoking tobacco products irritates the membranes of your airways, causing them to produce more mucus. This can block the eustachian tubes and make equalizing more difficult.
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?
Early and often! Most certification agencies recommend equalizing every meter (or few feet) while descending. But it’s different for everyone. As you dive more, you will begin to learn what your body needs.
The ideal situation is that you never feel discomfort or squeezing in your ears at all. If you do, you’re already experiencing mild barotrauma and you should slowly ascend to release the pressure before trying to equalize.
The good news is that the deeper you go, the less you’ll need to equalize. This is because the biggest pressure change is in the first 10m below the surface – another result of Boyle’s Law!
Continue to equalize when you feel you need to throughout your dive, or every few minutes. 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.
How Do I Get Rid Of Blocked Ears 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. There are also over the counter remedies for releasing trapped water.
If the problem persists, be sure to go and see your physician.
Can I over equalize my ears?
Yes. If you blow too hard and too long against pinched nostrils you can over pressurize 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).
This is why we need to be gentle – and not force it!
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. 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 as the pressure equalizes due to the inflow of water.
This can cause extreme vertigo and we all know that is not a good thing when you’re underwater!
Even though most eardrums will heal by themselves within a few weeks, it’s important to seek 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.
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.
Though not discussed in this article, it can also cause issues with your sinuses, another air space. Normally, your sinuses equalize without help. When they are clogged with mucus, the air cannot flow as it would, creating pockets of air that cannot equalize. These air pockets cause the small blood vessels around them to burst, so you might come up with a nose bleed. Whilst this is not technically a dangerous injury, it can be excruciatingly painful (it is described as a white-hot needle to the brain!) and it is best avoided.
As if you needed another reason not to dive with a cold, it can also reduce your air consumption, potentially cutting your dive time.
But… Can I take decongestants and dive anyway?
This method is certainly used in the diving world though it isn’t a good idea for several reasons. Firstly, decongestants can make you drowsy and it is vital to be operating at full capacity when you dive! Secondly, if they wear off midway through your dive, you can suddenly develop ear and needle-sharp sinus pain half-way through a dive. Not fun.
Can you go scuba diving with ear problems or barotrauma?
OK, so you messed up on the first dive of your trip. You ignored the pain in your ears and now you’ve got middle ear barotrauma. Your ears feel stuffy 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? You can. And many divers do. But you’re risking permanent hearing loss and problems with your 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.
My ears won’t clear after scuba diving!
Don’t panic! Whilst you may have experienced mild barotrauma, you may also just have water in your ears. Get some reliable eardrops like SwimEar for clearing up trapped water. If that doesn’t do the trick, go and see a physician.
When I do the valsalva maneuver, only one ear pops?
When only one ear pops, it is likely that there’s a slight blockage in one eustachian tube. What is most important is to be calm and patient, the more frustrated you get, the less likely you are to equalize successfully. Next, ascend slowly a few meters. Wiggle your head from side to side and wiggle your jaw too. Now gently try again. Continue to gradually ascend until the other ear equalizes!
And remember, some days, ears don’t want to equalize. It happens to all divers at some point. Whilst it is incredibly frustrating, it is far better to sit out one dive, than risk injury, and your entire diving career!
Now you’re an expert on how to equalize ear pressure when scuba diving and how to do so safely.
Equipped with all this knowledge you’ll be able to beat the squeeze and equalize like a pro!
Try out some of our tips on your next dive and let us know how you get on in the comments!
Alexa Worswick is a PADI and SSI scuba diving Instructor, recreational freediver and freelance copywriter. She first learnt to scuba dive in the UK aged 15 and has since travelled and dived in multiple locations across 3 different continents. After quitting her marketing job in London in 2016, Alexa is now based in Indonesia where she can pursue her passion for the ocean fulltime.