Lots of divers have the same issue as you (we’re assuming because you’re reading this article). Clearing ears and equalizing are common.
Let’s take a little look at how the body works in the water.
Your middle ear is full of air. It’s sort of like dead space. They connect from the back of your throat, via the eustachian tubes, and connect to the outer ear, the sounds, and the world. Cool right?
The pain from your ears when under water happens when the air pressure in your middle air does not match pressure building around you from the water. This results in pain and, perhaps, damage to the delicate inner ear workings.
How to Safely Equalize Your Ears When Diving
The key for safe equalization of ears and air pressure is to open the eustachian tubes that are normally close. This allows the higher-pressure air from your throat to get into the middle ears. This equalizes the air in the middle ear and boom…the pain is gone/reduced.
Depending on how your body works (we are all different), you can try any or all of the below techniques to clear your ears and equalize.
- The Valsalva Maneuver: This is the method by which most divers are taught to equalize their ears. It’s done pinching the nose and gently blowing. This gentle blow basically forces open the eustachian tubes.
- Toynbee Maneuver: Pinched nostrils (or blocked against the mask skirt), swallowing will pull open the eustachian tubes and the movement of your tongue presses air against them.
- Edmonds Technique: Tense the soft palate and throat muscles and push your jaw forward and down…that’s the Edmonds Technique,
- Lowry Technique: Combination fo the Vasalva and the Toynbee. Close nostrils, blow gently, and swallow at the same time.
- Voluntary Tubal Opening: Tense muscles in the soft palate and the throat while at the same time pushing the jaw forward and down like you’re going to start a yawn. The muscles pull the eustachian tubes open.
- Frenzel Maneuver: Pinch your nostrils, and close the back of your throat (again, this takes practice) then (as disgusting as it sounds) try to make the sound of the letter “K” on the back of your throat…or make the throat movement that would hack up a loogie.
There is, however, a better way to open the eustachian tubes by using the throat muscles by doing a little thing called swallowing. If you notice, when you swallow you’ll hear / feel a slight popping with each gulp or two.
That being said, and as natural as it sounds, the rapid changes in pressure that are associated with diving requires that this process be helped along a little bit.
Here Are Our Main Tips on Clearing the Ears and Equalizing
- Make Sure the Ears Operate Correctly: Before you even start the dive, make sure you do some nose pinching and swallowing to feel that gentle “pop”. This ensures that your eustachian tubes are opening. It may sound rare and funny, but I actually had a friend who had to give up diving and sell all his gear because his inner/middle ears wouldn’t equalize and he couldn’t get his eustachian tubes to open or close.
- Work those Tubes Early and Often: A few hours before the dive, start to gently equalize your ears every so often. This is where chewing gum comes in handy and helps a lot because it happens naturally. Think of this as “greasing” up the works to make sure everything is in great working order.
- Equalize at the Top: This helps some people and not others. Also, not all medical peeps will recommend this. However, if it helps you then don’t hesitate to do it. Pre-pressurizing at the surface tends to help or “prime” the eustachian tubes for the pressure changes to come.
- Descend Feet First: It’s easier to equalize with the swallowing muscles when you descend feet first. Crazy…but true.
- Look to the sky: Looking up extends and stretches the neck muscles and opens the throat so that is easier to clear and pressurize.
- Pull when possible: Using an anchor or mooring line to pull yourself down (feet first) allows you to control descent rate and stop, slow or speed up when necessary.
- Stay Ahead of the Pressure: Pressurize and equalize early and often. Stay ahead of the game and your body will thank and cooperate with you.
- If it hurts, STOP: If it hurts and you’re unable to equalize, then it may be that your tubes are locked shut by the pressure. If this happens, ascend a few feet and do it again before starting another slow descent.
- No Milk, Alcohol or Tobacco: Milk increases mucus. Tobacco and Alcohol both irritate the mucus membrane. This blocks eustachian tubes. Bad stuff…
- Keep Your Mask Clear: When you get water up the nose, that irritates the nostrils and increases mucus. That makes it harder to clear and equalize at the eustachian tubes.
- Alternate Between Equalization and Ear Clearing Methods (See Above): Try them all or find the one that works for you the best.
Your diving gear is high-tech and will help you as much as possible. Knowing how the body works, though, will get you through the uncomfort in the ears when descending and ascending before, during, and after a dive.