Why you feel the need to equalize
If you have ever flown on an airplane, you would have most likely felt a discomfort in your ears on descent. The reason for this is an imbalance between the air in your airspaces (ears and sinuses) and the surrounding air pressure in the cabin. The simple way to relieve this discomfort is to add air to your airspaces which will then balance your airspaces to the surrounding pressure. This is referred to as equalization.
The same thing applies to scuba diving, as you descend the surrounding pressure increases, so to relieve discomfort you have to equalize you ears and sinuses.
Things that can cause problems with equalizing
Most people have no problem to equalize their ears, however there are few conditions that can make equalization more difficult.
Colds and congestion
A cold, congestion or an allergy such as severe hay fever can cause the upper respiratory system to swell, become congested with mucus and block the sinuses and eustachian tubes. Taking a decongestant may unblock your tubes but if the medication wears off during the dive, you may then experience a reverse block on ascent, which can be extremely painful. This is why it is not recommended to dive with a cold.
Surfer’s ear is the common name for an exostosis or abnormal bone growth within the ear canal. It’s called surfers ear but also applies to scuba divers that dive in cold water. Cold water exposure can cause the bone surrounding the ear canal to develop lumps of new bony growth which constrict the ear canal.
You have probably experienced your mother cleaning your ears with a cotton bud as a child. However, apart from getting wax out, cotton buds can also push wax in, deeper into the ear and over time compact the wax. This can lead to water getting trapped behind the wax and causing ear infections. It can also affect hearing and ease of equalizing. If you experience this, it may be worth consulting a doctor and getting your ears syringed to get the built-up wax out.
Narrow Eustachian tubes
Your eustachian tubes are usually closed but open when muscles contract during actions like yawning and swallowing. When the air pressure changes outside, your eustachian tube opens to allow air to move from the ear canal to the middle ear so the pressure can equalize on both sides of the eardrum.
Most people have no trouble opening their eustachian tubes when air pressure changes. But if you have narrow tubes, you may find it harder to equalize the pressure and experience some temporary ear pain.
Techniques to equalize your ears
There are many different ways to equalize your ears, some easier than others, but it can be just a matter of finding the right method for you.
If you do have difficulty then go slow and feet first and try some of these methods.
The most common method used and the method you were probably taught on your PADI Open Water Course. Pinch your nose, then attempt to gently blow out through your nose.
When you swallow, the throat muscles help to open the Eustachian tubes to allow air to move from the ear canal to the middle ear.
Wiggling your jaw
Wiggle or move your jaw from side to side. This stretches the Eustachian tubes.
Pinch your nose, then swallow.
Pinch your nose, then attempt to blow out through your nose and swallow.
Pinch your nose and make the sound of the letter “K”
Tilt your head
Tilt your head to one side and pinch your nose. Then attempt to gently blow out through your nose, equalizing one ear at a time
Remember if you have trouble equalizing then ascend a meter and try again. Never continue descending until your ears have equalized and never force your ears.
The more you scuba dive, the easier equalizing gets, just relax, take your time and find the right method for you.