As a recreational diver, I’ve had friends ask me several times “Doesn’t scuba diving hurt your ears?” Many potential divers have experienced ear pain when diving down in a swimming pool because they did not properly equalise the pressure in their ears. These people are worried that they will experience the same sensation when scuba diving.
It’s OK because, most people can equalise their ears easily with the techniques I’m about to share with you – many of these techniques I use myself and why not pay it forward? This is the way in PADI!
First of all you should always check your technique, in many cases I’ve seen instructors tell divers one thing but the divers do another or start to panic and not take the time to complete the process, therefore equalise their ears. This is why when divers don’t know how to equalise their ears properly, it ends up in being a cancelled dive – this is the number 1 reason for pulled dives.
Now if you are like me, then you’ll know some stuff about your ears. I believe that this is really important if you want to understand how ear equalisation works. All divers in my humble opinion must first learn some basic ear anatomy;
- The Outer Ear is open to the environment and is filled with air (or water) from the surroundings. The outer ear experiences the same pressure as the outside environment.
- The Middle Ear is not open to the environment. In fact, the middle ear is almost completely air-tight. The only way air can move in and out of the middle ear is through a thin tube called the Eustachian tube.
- The (auditory) Eustachian Tube connects your ears to your nose and throat. When the Eustachian tube is open, air can flow from your nose and throat into your ears. However, the Eustachian tube is normally closed, trapping air in the middle ear.
- The Eardrum is a thin tissue that separates the outer ear and the middle ear.
Valsalva – Pinch and blow
This is the most commonly taught technique and everyone knows it; but many people still don’t do it quite right. Pinch your nose and gently blow air up through your throat and into the auditory (also known as eustachian) tubes.
The trick is to blow with the right amount of pressure – but not too much. If you blow with too much pressure you can damage the inner ear. You want to blow as hard as you would if you were inflating a large balloon.
And yes there are a couple variations of doing this (body position), the most common is vertical, this is where you are standing up so to speak or descending feet first.
The other variant – one which I use often on drift dives – is horizontally. Here you are lying on your belly so to speak, your legs are bent at the knee so the palms of your feet are facing the surface. When I’ve had particular difficulty on one or two dives, this works very well in helping to equalise your ears.
Voluntary tubal opening
This technique has other names too, all of which I cannot remember. I don’t know too much about this but . What you do using this technique is to contract he muscles in the roof of your mouth, but your mouth is closed – like yawning.
Tensing and stretching the muscles pull the eustachian tubes open. Some divers get good enough at this technique to hold their tubes open for continuous equalisation. I am not one of them.
Pinch your nose and swallow at the same time – it is that simple. Swallowing tenses the muscles in the throat and soft palate to pull the tubes open, while your tongue compresses air against them. This is considered one of the most natural ways to equalise.
While using other equalising techniques, tilt your head from side to side (the side being stretched should be easier to clear). Some divers also find it easier to clear their ears if they look up. Tilting the head stretches the folds surrounding the auditory tubes so it’s easier to open them.
These are not all the techniques that are out there – there are more – but several that previous instructors (S/O to Yoda) had taught me and that I actively use and successfully at that.
As always make sure you talk things through with your instructor or your guide, let them know of any problems you have when diving BEFORE you dive. This way they can give you the appropriate attention and help needed to make your dive as enjoyable and successful as possible.