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Keeping Your Ears Safe While Diving: Ear Equalization Basics

By: Dillon Waters

So you are thinking of signing up for your first scuba diving course, or even better, you’ve already made the commitment to start your new adventure, but you aren’t sure about your ears. Swimming down to the deep end of the pool is something you’ve done before and you aren’t sure if your ears will be able to handle going any deeper than that on scuba. Do not worry though, your scuba instructor’s job will be to teach you the skills necessary to dive and that includes the proper ways to equalize the pressure in your ears underwater. If you want to familiarize yourself beforehand, you have come to the right place.

Why You Must Equalize

Your middle ears are dead air spaces, connected to the outer world only by the Eustachian tubes running to the back of your throat. In normal everyday conditions, or when the outside pressure is within a normal level, the Eustachian tubes are closed. During a dive the pressure from the surrounding water is higher than the pressure exerted on us by the atmosphere of air we are used to on land. So we must equalize the pressure of our middle ear with that of the pressure around us, also known as the ambient pressure, by opening the normally closed Eustachian tubes. Opening the tubes usually requires a conscious act by the diver.

How to Equalize

There are many ways to equalize the pressure in your middle ear; some of which are listed and explained below. During your course you will be able to determine the one that works best for you.

  • Swallowingone of the most effective and preferred methods of equalization, using the throat muscles to open the Eustachian tubes.
  • Valsalva Maneuver – the “go to” equalization technique of divers for years. Pinch your nostrils and gently blow through your nose. This results in a slight over pressurization in your throat, which normally forces air up your Eustachian tubes.
  • Frenzel Maneuver Close off the vocal cords, as though you are about to lift a heavy weight. The nostrils are pinched closed and an effort is made to make a “K” sound. This should force the back of your tongue upward, forcing air against your Eustachian tubes.
  • Toynbee Maneuver with your nostrils pinched, swallow.
  • Lowry Technique with your nostrils pinched, swallow and gently blow.
  • Edmonds Technique Pressurization by either the Valsalva or Frenzel maneuver, combined with a jaw thrust or head tilt to more effectively.
  • Beance Tubaire Volontaire Muscles of the soft palate are contracted while upper throat muscles are employed to pull the Eustachian tube open. Tense the muscles of the soft palate and the throat while pushing the jaw forward and down as if starting to yawn.

When to Equalize

Early and often is the golden rule here. Many divers like to start very early in the day before even arriving at the dive site by swallowing to ensure their Eustachian tubes are opening. Also, pre-pressurizing your ears before descent may help with equalization after you’ve submerged.  From here on throughout the dive, your ear equalization will vary based on your body and the dive profile you are following. You should equalize when you feel any slight pressure in your ears throughout the dive, as well as when you reach a depth that you will remain at for any extended period of time. If your ears begin to hurt you should ascend a few feet in the water column and try to equalize again.

Practice Makes Perfect

For those that are still concerned whether or not they will be able to equalize their ears, or for divers who are having trouble doing so, you may find it helpful to practice several equalization techniques. Many of them can be difficult unless practiced repeatedly, but it is one of the few scuba skills that can be practiced out of the water and almost anywhere. Begin practicing it in the mirror to observe your throat muscles, and then practice anytime you have a free second. Before you know it you will be a pro, and the almost endless scuba diving opportunities around the world will be at your fingertips.

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