As we descend underwater the pressure quickly increases around us. This increased pressure causes the air inside our body’s air spaces to compress, which is mostly noticeable in our ears. If left unchecked, this added pressure will cause discomfort to the delicate parts of our ears, and if the diver was to descend much further then it could damage our ears. Equalization is the process of adding air to these air spaces so we can continue downwards. This is an essential skill for scuba diving, but some divers find it easier than others. When I am teaching a dive course, I anticipate that 1 in every 4 student divers will have trouble with equalization.
These are some of my favorite tips to help divers overcome equalization troubles;
Equalize before getting in the water
Before you even jump in the water, pre-equalize with the simple “blow gently with pinched nostrils method”. This will increase the pressure in your Eustachian tubes (that connects your throat to your ears), which will in turn, make it easier to equalize as you descend. Make sure you never force this process, as you could cause damage or discomfort.
Descend feet first
It is harder for some people to equalize their ears if they are in a head down position. Try to maintain a head up, feet down position for longer. The slight difference in depth between your lungs and ears will mean the pressure is higher in your lungs, and this added pressure can actually help you equalize.
If you are heavily over weighted you will probably sink like a stone, which will make it very difficult for you to descend. If you have trouble equalizing then descending quickly will only make it harder. You should try to descend when you are only slightly negatively buoyant, so you can stop yourself easily if you have any issues.
Equalize early and often
The most common reason for divers struggling with equalization is because they have descended too deep between equalization attempts. If you wait too long then the pressure difference between the inside of your ear and the ambient pressure becomes too great, and clearing becomes very difficult. If you do manage to clear then it will usually be painful and will leave you feeling bruised. You should never wait to feel the pressure build up, you should always equalize before you feel and discomfort. There is no such thing as equalizing your ears too many times, personally I like to do it ever 50cm.
Try different equalizing techniques
There are many different ways to equalize you ears. The most common one is the classic pinch nose method, which is officially called the Valsalva manoeuvre. This method works for most people, but not for everybody. Another great method is pinching your nose and swallowing, which again works for some people but not others. Moving your jaw from side to side is another effective method, however takes some practice so you do not fill your mouth with water.
We always say how important it is to keep hydrated for scuba diving, but did you know that being dehydrated actually makes it more difficult to equalize too? This is because dehydration causes the mucus to become thicker, making it more likely to block our air passages.
Account for allergies
Some food allergies such as dairy, can cause your mucus membranes to swell and produce more mucus, which will block nasal passages. If you find that certain foods cause you to get a bit blocked up then it is a good idea to avoid them a few days before you go diving. If you suffer from allergies to dust or pollen, such as hay fever, then you may find it helps if you take an antihistamine a couple of hours before you get into the water. Just make sure it is not one of the ones that can make you feel a bit drowsy.
Move your head around
Sometimes moving your head from side to side can help open up your Eustachian tubes. It is worth shaking your head, or looking up or down at the same time as trying the Valsalva manoeuvre. This can really make a difference for some people, and from my experience it is the most effective way for someone with equalization issues to get down.
Equalizing when diving comes easier to some than others. Some may find that this is something that they have to think about before every dive, or equalization problems might only pop up every now and then. The important thing to remember is that you never try to force it, or descend any further if you are having problems. Over time you will find that it becomes easier, and always remember that the biggest pressure change is between the surface and 10 meters, so the initial descent will always be the most difficult.
‘8 Tips for Easier Equalizing’ was written by Mike