EQUALIZING EARS DURING SCUBA DIVING DESCENT

Equalize It!

treating ear squeeze
Equalize early and often.

As we descend underwater, water pressure increases. Changes in water pressure are more drastic in the shallow water, and special attention at those first few meters/feet of the decent is needed. Water pressure affects our dead air spaces, such as our scuba masks and ears. The affect of unequalized air space on our body is called a squeeze.

We sometimes feel ear squeezes on airplanes or when driving down the mountain, though when diving the sensations may be much stronger. If left unequalized a squeeze can cause serious ear injuries.

Equalizing Ears Underwater:

Our ears are very sensitive to changes in pressure. Some divers’ ears are so sensitive they can start feeling discomfort from the first few feet/meter. These conditions may change from a diver to another, and can change during the day. It’s important to stay alert and listen to what you ears are trying to say to you.

Here are some general rules that apply to all equalizing ears techniques:

  1. Do not dive with a cold. Diving with a severe cold can cause serious injuries; it makes equalizing hard and even if you’re eventually able to descend, you might find it hard to ascend back to the surface- and effect called “Reverse Block“. Mucus blocked sinuses may be hard to equalize when expanding air trying to escape you sinuses upon ascend may be pressed inside. Some divers use decongestion drugs to be able to dive with a cold. If you choose to do so, be aware that drugs effect may ware off during the dive, so plan it carefully
  2. Start equalizing at the surface. No. you won’t feel any pressure changes yet, but practicing some of the techniques at the surface warm up your muscles, making equalizing a lot faster when time comes. Some divers chew a gam before diving, that might speed up equalizing too.
  3. Descent feet first. This is generally recommended for descent for various reasons, mainly, allowing greater control over the descent rate and to react quickly should you feel discomfort.
  4. Remember to equalize often and frequently, especially at the shallows, where pressure changes are greater.
  5. Be proactive. Start to equalize your ears as soon as you descent, and always before you feel discomfort. If you feel pain, you’re already a bit late, as you’ve allowed pressure to build in.
  6. Don’t force it. Trying to equalize  your ears forcefully can lead to serious, permanent ear injuries. If it’s hard to equalize and it takes to long to descent, abort the dive or spend your time at the shallows, which have a huge variety of marine flora and fauna. A lot of ear injuries are caused by divers trying to force their way down even when feeling pain and struggling to equalize their ears.It’s never worth it.
  7. Stop and ascend a few feet if you feel discomfort or pain. Do not descent any further as you’re risking serious ear injuries. Ascending a few feet/meter relieves the pressure and pain and also allows you to equalize your ears easily

How to equalize ears underwater?

Following the above guidelines is essential for safe and comfortable descent. There are a few techniques to equalize ears and relieve the pressure. You can choose your preferred one, or combine a few, it doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as it feels right.

Ear Equalization Techniques:

  1. The Valsalva maneuver- Pinch your nose, and gently attempt to blow air through your nostrils. This method is probably the easiest and most common one, but it does have its disadvantages; prolonged and forceful blow through pinched nose can cause inflammation of the tissues around the Eustachian tubes. Remember to gently blow the air out.
  2. Wiggle your jaw, move your head from side to side, that opens up the Eustachian tubes and allows equalization.
  3. Attempt to swallow. Every time we swallow we open up the Eustachian tubes allowing air to equalize.
  4. Combine all methods.

Mask Squeeze.

A mask squeeze is caused by unequalized mask. As water pressure on the masks surface increases, it essentially sucks the blood vessels out of your skin. This is not life threatening, but may look quite spooky. A mask squeeze can for black eyes ad bruises on the face, which will look like you’ve just return from a long brutal night at the local pub.

Avoiding Mask Squeeze: Equalizing a Scuba Mask

Mask squeeze is easily avoided and should not occur.

All you have to do to equalize your mask and avoid a mask squeeze is to occasionally exhale through your nose, relieving the pressure built in your mask. Most divers do it automatically; and you may need to do it anyway when clearing your mask from water underwater.

5 comments

  1. Hi.

    I am considering doing a commercial diving course in Fort William. I am new to diving and went up there for an inducton where I went for practice dive. I seem to struggle when trying to equalize with my left ear, were as my right ear is fine. It took me some time to decend but I got down to about four meters in the end. Is there any way I can get my ears checked before I spend all my money on this course. I really want to do this as a career and worried incase I have problems with my ears.

    Thank you for your time

  2. Hi Dean,
    I myself am not a commercial diver, but I do believe the requirements for attending such a course are passing a physical exam. You can and should also consult with an ear and sinuses doctor before investing your time and money. Having said that, it is not rare to experience temporary ear problems. Many circumstances, such as cold or even uncleaned ears can lead to difficulties equalizing. These symptoms my sometime disappear on the same day between dives, so don’t be to discouraged by it.
    Hope that helped,
    Tobi

  3. I am scuba certified. During certification, I had a really hard time equalizing. Since, I have went on one charter in the keys. Again, I had a hard time. In the YMCA pool, I tried something else. The pool is 30 ft deep. I held my breath the whole decent, and I did a continuous nose hold, blowing out lightly, all the way down with no discomfort at all. Can I do this with gear? Or is it bad to hold breath on descent?
    Thanks
    Nathan

  4. Hi Nathan
    Don’t feel discouraged about having equalizing problems on decent.
    This is a very common problem. There are many factors that contribute to that that can change even within the day, so it doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to face the same problems on each and every dive.
    What I would try to do, to start with, is warm up your jaw muscles prior to your dive. Chew something, move your jaw, yawn, this often helps equalizing faster.You obviously want to make sure you are not congested as this often effects your ears. a decongestion medicine might help.
    Holding breath while scuba diving is not recommended, and is the first rule you’re taught as a scuba diver. Although technically, while descending this shouldn’t pose any problems, I would not recommend it. Take your time descending, and preparing for the dive and don’t force your way.
    If this problem persist (Do not be alarmed, I know many professional divers who had similar issues for quite a while) get your ears checked, and ask for a solution from your physician.
    Tobi

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