Here’s To Our Ears!

As anyone who has been deeper than two feet in the ocean can attest, our ears are among our most important body parts for freediving. The ability to equalize pressure in our ears and sinuses is essential to enjoying our sport, and a few basic habits and tips can go a long way toward ensuring you’re ears remain fit, flexible and ready to help you reach your freediving goals. This month, PFI Instructor, Team USA athlete and ER physician Kerry Hollowell shares her tips for maintaining happy ears:

“One of the most common areas of injury for free divers is our ears. When we first get in the water and start stressing our ears during equalization, the eustachian tube (the tube that connects the ears to the throat) can become inflamed and irritated. This is seen often in the beginning of the dive season when the ears have not yet adapted to the constantly changing pressures and the movement of air within these spaces.

Most tissues, over time, will adapt to changing environments, and this is true with our ears as well. One way to prepare your ears for the workout they’re going to get during a day (or more) of freediving is to practice equalizing your ears on dry land for about one week prior to your diving day. Ideally you would want to do at least 200 equalizations per day on dry land in the days leading up to your dive in order to to train the tissue in your ears and eustachian tubes to be ready to do equalizations under pressure. Over time, you’ll notice your ears adapt to frequent and repeated equalization and are less prone to becoming inflamed and irritated.

If they do get inflamed, though, the use of 400-800mg ibuprofen, three times per day, over the course of 2-3 days, combined with the use of Flonase nasal spray once daily in each nostril, should help to decrease the inflammation in your ears, eustachian tubes and sinuses. It is important to understand that ibuprofen has both analgesic (pain relieving) and anti-inflammatory qualities, and although even small doses (200mg) of ibuprofen can have a pain reducing effect, the anti-inflammatory effect of ibuprofen will not be realized in small doses, but only when taken at the higher dose of 400-800mg three times a day. So, as long as your stomach can tolerate ibuprofen, if you’re taking it to reduce inflammation, make sure you’re taking the correct amount.

Also remember that that feeling of fullness, or of “water” in your ear(s) that doesn’t go away after shaking your head, is not water in the outer ear canal, but rather fluid behind the tympanic membrane (your ear drum) that will need to slowly drain out and be reabsorbed before that feeling of fullness will dissipate and your hearing will return to normal. To aid in that process, sleep with the affected ear high so that the fluid can drain out through your eustachian tube, and you should be back to normal by morning.

With frequent dry land equalization practice, your ears should be prepared and ready for your next dive session. Always be aware of your ability to equalize, though, and if you find you’re having sustained trouble equalizing, for whatever reason, don’t push your ears to the point of pain or discomfort. Better to call it a day and give your ears the rest they deserve.

Remember, allowing time for recovery of the tissue within your ears is important, and adaptation will occur over time and with proper dive technique. So be patient, respect your ears and the essential role they play in the enjoyment of your diving, and remember to equalize early and often. Safe diving everyone!

Stay tuned next month for Doc Hollowell’s tips on avoiding trachea squeezes…