A guide to equalizing

Equalizing often throughout your dive will help to prevent discomfort

Equalizing often throughout your dive will help to prevent discomfort

Us divers can sometimes be to ear problems. Our ears are like any other muscle in our body, and can be trained to cope better with the changes in pressure that we experience when we venture underwater. There are many ways in which we can look after our ears, before, during and after we go diving, helping to keep our dives fun and irritable free.

Here we will have a little look at how our ears work and give you a better idea of what's inside so that the techniques we suggest make more sense and are easier to remember. The middle part of our ear is an air space. This is where you will feel the pressure, or squeeze, when you descend at the beginning of a dive. If we fail to increase the pressure in these air spaces to match the building pressure around us hen we dive then we potentially feel discomfort and pain. The air spaces in our middle air is connected to the outside world by our Eustachian tubes, which run all the way to the back of the throat. These are normally closed, but we need to open them in order to allow the higher pressure from the throat into the middle ears to match the pressure building up around them.  

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Divers are taught to do this by pinching the nose and gently blowing out to "pop" the ears. This is a good technique and is effective, but we can also do this by swallowing. Swallowing pulls the Eustachian open using your throat muscles. 

Throughout the day we are equalizing without even realizing it. Oxygen is always being absorbed by the tissues in the middle ear, this lowers the air pressure in those spaces. When swallowing, the soft palate muscles pull the Eustachian tubes open, letting air to travel from your throat to the middle ears and equalize the pressure. You often know when this happens as you hear the 'pop' sound with every other swallow.

When Scuba diving, the equalization system is under slightly more strain.  Therefore, we need to help this process along slightly by using a few different techniques. Different ways of equalizing are ways to simply open the lower ends of the Eustachian tubes to allow air to enter.

Techniques for equalizing.

  • Passive equalization - this requires no effort and usually occurs when we ascend. If you are experiencing discomfort and cannot clear your ears then kick slightly upward, just a meter or so, keeping an eye on your computer, and try to equalize again.
  • Valsalva Maneuver - The technique used most commonly by divers. A diver pinches their nose and blows out gently. You should hear the "pop" as the air space in the middle ear equalizes to the building pressure on the outside of the body.
  • Equalize at the surface - Try to clear your ears before you even get them wet. This will open up your tubes before they are under any pressure, making it a lot easier as you descend and the pressure increases. 
  • Descend feet first - Studies have shown that the Valaslva maneuver requires 50% more force when you are in a head down position. Descend upright, this also helps with orientation and staying with your buddy.
  • Descend on a line - You can manage your depth a lot better when using a descent line. You can take your time equalizing and can gradually increase your depth as your ears feel comfortable.
  • Wiggle your jaw - This aids in opening up your Eustachian tubes. 
  • Avoid smoking and alcohol - We already know that this doesn't have very good affects on us when we dive. Cigarettes and alcohol increase mucus production, thus making it more difficult to open your tubes and clear the ears. 
  • Equalize often - You don't have to wait for pain in the ears to begin equalizing. Especially when you are descending, you should equalize every other breath in order to keep those tubes open and pain free. 

Although the Valsalva maneuver is the most common, it can sometimes not be so effective. Divers sometimes blow too hard and this causes a possible risk to damaging the delicate workings of the inner ear. If this technique does not suit you or you tend to have more trouble than other divers with equalizing, you may wish to practice some of these other techniques.  

Voluntary Tubal Opening - This is done by tensing your throat and pushing your jaw forward. Tensing the muscles of the soft palate and the throat whilst moving the jaw like your starting to yawn opens the Eustachian tubes. This usually takes a lot of practice, although some divers are able to control those muscles and hold the tubes open for a long amount of time, mastering this will give you continuous equalization. 

Toynbee Technique - Pinch your nostrils, blow against them, and swallow at the same time. Swallowing pulls open your Eustachian tubes while the movement of your tongue with your nose closed presses air into the middle ear. 

Lowry Technique - This is using both the Valsalva and Toynbee method, close your nostrils, blow and swallow at the same time.

Frenzel Maneuver - This is done by pinching your nose and making the sound of the letter 'K'
Close your nostrils and the back of your throat at the same time. The way to close your throat is acting as though your throat is trying to lift a weight. Do this and make the sound of the letter 'K'. This pushes the tongue upwards which compresses the air towards the openings of the Eustachian tubes. 

Each individual diver can equalize using their preferred method. If a diver doesn't equalize enough this can force air against the soft tissues at the end of the tubes, keeping them locked shut. This can result in barotrauma because no air gets to the middle ears. In worse scenarios blowing too hard during a Valsalva maneuver can rupture the round and oval windows in the inner ears. Concentrating on good equalization techniques can prevent discomfort and any lasting damage.