As we descend on a dive, pressure from outside water exceeds the pressure in our middle ear. If left unattended, this pressure can cause not only pain but also damage to some of the small, delicate parts of the ear. The solution is to make sure we’re properly equalizing the pressure as we descend. This skill comes easier for some divers than for others, though, and if you sometimes struggle with equalization, try one or more of the following tips to make ear clearing easier.
Start before you hit the water
Before you even get wet, pre-pressurize your Eustachian tubes (the small tubes that run from your throat to your inner ear) by closing your mouth, pinching your nose, and attempting to blow out softly through your nose. This will slightly increase the pressure in your Eustachian tubes, making it easier to equalize as you descend. As with any equalization technique, go easy and don’t overdo it, as this may cause discomfort or damage.
Equalize early and often
The most common cause of problems during descent is that divers often wait too long before they start clearing their ears. If the pressure difference between the inside of the ear and the ambient pressure becomes too great, clearing becomes almost impossible. Don’t wait for the first signs of discomfort — start as soon as you begin your descent. And equalize often. Some people will need to clear their ears every few feet, while others can get away with doing it much less frequently. You need to find your own frequency, but there’s no harm in equalizing more frequently than you need to.
If you have problems clearing your ears, maintain the upright position longer. By staying vertical, rather than leveling off into a horizontal position, the slight pressure difference between the air in your lungs and the air in your ears will help you equalize. In fact, studies have shown that some clearing techniques require 50 percent more force in a head-down position rather than in a head-up position.
The faster you descend, the harder it will be to equalize. If you’re dropping like a rock, you’re probably over-weighted, but if you must inflate your BC slightly as you descend, do so to slow your rate. If you struggle with equalizing, slow your descent rate until you reach a point where you can adjust to the pressure a little at a time.
Looking up can help with clearing your ears, as doing so opens up the Eustachian tubes.
Some people find that swallowing, maybe forcefully, can help clear their ears, sometimes on its own, other times in combination with other techniques.
Try a different technique
There are more ways to clear your ears than the traditional nose-pinch version, which is formally known as the Valsalva maneuver. Swallowing, as mentioned above, and also known as the Toynbee maneuver, is one alternative. The Edmond technique can be particularly helpful to those who have trouble equalizing, but it requires a bit of practice: tense up your soft palate (the rear part of the roof of your mouth) as well as your throat muscles, and push your jaw down and forward, then do a Valsalva. And my personal favorite is the Voluntary Tubular opening: tense up your soft palate and throat; then extend your jaw as if trying to stifle a yawn. This will push your Eustachian tubes open, allowing pressurized air to flow to them, equalizing the pressure.
Try making little stops along the way down. Sometimes, it can be quite a task load to manage your descent, keep an eye on your buddy and equalize. So make little stops by doing a few kicks with your fins (if you’re in the upright position, this will halt your descent) and do your equalization before continuing your descent.
Consider food allergies
Certain foods, such as nuts and dairy, can irritate the mucus membrane, causing it to generate more mucus, which can block the nasal passages. This can make equalization hard, or even impossible. If you suspect you may have food sensitivity, try to avoid the item for a few days before a dive and see if your equalization improves. Allergy tests will also help with a diagnosis.
Dehydration can cause the mucus in our nasal passages to become thicker, making it more likely to block the passages, and with them, equalization. So make sure you’re well hydrated before a dive (for a number of reasons, but now you have one more).