As a PADI Dive professional, one of the most frequent questions I’m asked is “does scuba diving hurt your ears?” The reason this question is often asked is most people have dived to the bottom of a swimming pool in the past and felt some discomfort inside their ear. They are worried they will have a similar experience when scuba diving.
My reply is always the same. “Relax” I tell people. “Pretty much everyone can equalize when using the correct techniques”.
I guess whilst reading this you are probably thinking the same. “Can I equalize?” There is a very simple test you can do right now whilst you are reading this….
Pinch your nose and gently blow against it. You should feel a little pop in your ears and if so, you have just equalised. Easy!
Why Do Scuba Divers Have To Equalise?
During your PADI Open Water diver course you learn the science behind why we have to equalise our ears during a dive. A simple way to imagine what is happening is thinking back to the last time you flew. As the plane begins the descend you will remember feeling a slight pressure inside your ear. Most times you will equalise without actually thinking too much about it, often when drinking some water or chewing something.
Sometimes it does become a little painful the further you descend. This is due to an increase in the surrounding pressure around your body as the plane descends and the reason for this discomfort is the pressure is pushing on your eardrum. It is the same concept when Scuba Diving with the one exception….
The surrounding pressure underwater changes much more quickly than the above. In fact, for every 10 metres we descend underwater, the pressure changes by what we call 1 atmosphere. Atmospheric pressure is the pressure exerted by the weight of air in the atmosphere of Earth.
So at the surface we are experiencing 1 atmosphere of pressure upon us. At 10 meters underwater we are experiencing 2 atmospheres of pressure. At 20 metres 3 atmospheres and so on.
As the pressure change is much greater when we go scuba diving, we need to think about equalisation in a little more detail. As you will learn during the PADI Open Water diver course, you need to equalize the pressure in the middle ear with the outside pressure. You will need to let air enter along the Eustachian tubes as this does not always happen automatically when the pressure in the middle ear is lower than the outside pressure.
There are three techniques we can use to equalise our ears.
Methods For Equalising….
#1. Valsalva Manoeuvre
The most common method for divers to use, this is simply to pinch your nose and gently blow against your fingers.
This results in overpressure in the throat which forces air up the Eustachian tubes and equalising the middle ear.
#2. Frenzel Manoeuvre
erform a very gentle Valsalva manoeuvre by breathing against pinched nostrils and swallowing at the same time.
#3. Swallow or Wiggle Your Jaw
Whilst keeping the regulator in your mouth, try swallowing or wiggling your jaw.
Practice Makes Perfect
Scuba Divers who have had problems equalising in the past may find it helpful to master multiple techniques.
These are skills you can practice on land, stand in front of a mirror and watch your throat muscles move to get comfortable with the different manoeuvres.
Tips for easy equalisation….
- Equalise early and often. Rule of thumb is every metre, do not wait to feel pressure on you ear. You can even start by equalising at the surface.
- Do not force it. If it is hurting, stop and ascend a few metres and try again.
- Descend feet first. Air travels upwards, studies show that a valsalva maneuver requires 50% more force if attempted with your head down.
- Use a line. Having a descent line controls your speed and will help if you do have a few issues.
- Look up. This will open up your Eustachian tubes for easier air flow.
It is also important divers have good buoyancy skills. Good buoyancy means you have more control. Ultimately this means more comfortable equalisation during descents and ascents. You will be able to control the speed you are descending, especially useful where a decent line is not in use.
If you haven’t dived for a while, or are relatively new to scuba, then practicing and improving your buoyancy is essential and not just for a more comfortable equalisation experience. Buoyancy is one of the most important scuba skills.
I hope this short guide has been useful and you are now more confident in becoming a PADI Open Water diver.
Author: Neil Davidson (PADI MSDT #294100)