It also exposes our bodies to new physiological changes that can seem strange to us, and sometimes cause a bit of worry.
Equalizing the “dead air spaces” in your body is one of the first skills you learn on the PADI Open Water Course. It is a skill that needs to be mastered before moving forward.
One air space that can cause issues, for new and experienced divers alike, is the air space within our ears. So, let’s go back to the basics- read on for an easy to follow guide.
Diving is a wonderful sport which opens a new world to explore.
Why Do We Need to Equalize Our Ears?
In Scuba diving, we speak about equalization. Without going too deep into the physics, it simply means the need to equalize pressure between the inside of your ears and the surrounding environment – the underwater one.
We are not well adapted to the underwater environment, so our ears often struggle to maintain a balance pressure as we descend. As we go deeper, the pressure keeps on increasing, with the biggest change in pressure occurring in the first 10 metres. The only way to compensate is to push the Eustachian tube – a tunnel that connects the middle ear space to the back of the nose – outwards.
What Happens if We Don’t Equalize?
If we can’t equalize as we slowly descend, the increased pressure pushing on the eardrum causes pain inside the ear.
If we fail to stop or slow down our descent, it could lead to a Tympanic Membrane Rupture, or what is commonly known as a perforated eardrum. This is why it is extremely important to practice equalizing with your instructor in a shallow, confined environment.
How to Equalize in Diving
If you have been on an aeroplane before, you will be familiar with the feeling of an increase of pressure in the surrounding environment. We experience a similar feeling when we begin to descend.
Early and often is a great rule to remember. There are a few methods that divers use to equalize including the commonly taught “Valsalva” method. The Valsava method is an exhalation against a closed airway – simply pinching your nose and gently blowing into it. The key word here is gentle. Blowing too forcefully can lead to barotrauma.
One way I teach my students is to pinch their nose and swallow. Swallowing encourages the muscles of the throat to open to tubes – a much more physiologically natural way to achieve equalization. This is called the Toynbee Manoeuvre; swallowing pulls open the Eustachian tubes and the movement of your tongue, with your nose closed compresses air against them. Experienced divers can reach the point where all they have to do is swallow to equalize.
There is no doubt that it is strange sensation, and often causes new divers to become anxious. Your instructor will ensure you are happy with the methods at the surface before taking you into the water to practice them.
Top tips on How to Equalize
- Practice at the surface – You can check that both Eustachian tubes are open by swallowing and listening out for the “pop” or “click”. You can begin this in the hours leading up to your dive, slowly easing your tubes up.
- Descend feet first – Air rises, and this is the same when air rises up in the Eustachian tubes. Placing your body in an upright position and descending feet first can help reduce the risks of encountering problems equalizing. It can also help reduce the risk of vertigo occurring.
- Look up – It is important to look at where you are descending onto, as well as keeping good eye contact with your buddy when descending. However, extending your neck can help open up the Eustachian tubes.
- Use a descent line – This is something that ultimately helps control the descent. You can stop and pause your descent if you feel pressure.
- Equalize often – Make sure you are equalizing often, every few feet, more if you can.
- If you feel pain, stop – If you begin to feel pain, do not continue with your descent. Your middle ear is a fragile area and barotrauma can occur easily if you try to push through the pain.
- Look after your body – avoid mucus forming foods such as dairy products. Avoiding tobacco and alcohol also helps, as both are substances that irritate your mucus membranes. Not only is more mucus pretty disgusting, it can block your Eustachian tubes and ruin your chances of being able to equalize.
- Relax – try and keep calm and relaxed, this will encourage your whole body to not tense up, including the important muscles involved in equalizing.
What if I Can’t Equalize When Scuba Diving?
Many divers rarely encounter equalization issues and can dive without the worry. However, we are all certainly individuals and where one person may be able to descend with no problems at all, other divers may need a much slower descent.
Speaking about slow descents, during my PADI Divemaster Course, myself and friends visited the legendary Sail Rock, off the coast of Thailand. At the end of our surface interval, we spotted the big blue spotty fish (can you guess what it was?!), and eagerly conducted our pre dive safety checks and entered the water.
We did our 5 point descent and began to descend to get a closer look at the beautiful creature. But I could not get further than a few feet under the surface!!! I signalled to my buddy that I was having trouble equalizing and he gave me the most annoyed look with his eyes as he paused his descent and hovered next to me. After a few minutes, I felt a wave of joy as my ears “popped” and I signalled an extremely enthusiastic OK, and we continued our descent. We were gifted with not one whale shark on that dive, but two!!
No dive is worth pushing your limits, both physiologically and mentally, so if you do have trouble with your ears, pause your descent and signal to your buddy. Ascend a few feet, give it a moment and then try again.
If you get into the water and are experiencing pain when attempting to equalize, please do not force it! Leave the water and try again later. No dive is worth forfeiting the health of your body. If you continue to experience problems, I recommend you see a specialist who can investigate things further. Your health and safety should always be your number one priority!
For further things that divers should do to stay safe when diving, read my blog here.