Balancing Our Ears During Our Scuba Dives

Everyone’s already felt pressure in their ears when they were little kids diving into the pool. The phenomenon felt from childhood is the same one that divers feel, which is why it’s important to know how to balance your ears to avoid injury and to have more enjoyable diving experiences. Oftentimes, when people start scuba diving, balancing your ears is one issue that causes the most trouble. However, it shouldn’t be. Once you know how to go about fixing the problem, you will learn how to listen to your body and become a better diver.

Explaining the phenomenon.

As divers, we are often subjected to great physiological pressure because of all the water above our heads.We are mostly made up of water and it is only the air cavities that are affected by all this pressure. This is the case for our sinuses, which can become a source of pain if the diver does not adequately balance their ears. On the surface, we feel one atmosphere of pressure. At 10 metres deep, another atmosphere is added. Every 10 metres deeper, you can feel another atmosphere of pressure. It is possible to observe this phenomenon with a bottle of water filled with air that implodes when it is submerged. This is also what happens to the sinuses if nothing is done to accommodate all this new pressure. Neglecting to do so can result in barotrauma, which in some cases leads to a temporary dive stop. This is why we cannot wait until our ears hurt to balance. We have to take the time to go down without putting too much pressure on our ears, especially for beginners. The eardrum becomes more flexible over time, and it’s normal to see that balancing is more arduous at first. With experience and practice, it isn’t a problem anymore, and you can enjoy diving without ear issues.

How can we fix the problem?

There are several methods of balancing the ears. The most common, and the one taught in the PADI Open Water course, is the Valsalva method. It consists in pinching the nose while gently exhaling through the nose as to increase the pressure in the sinuses and prevent the excessive pressure difference between the external environment and the inner ear to lead to pain or injury.It is important to start balancing early in the dive and not to wait until you have trouble performing the action again.

Your descent should not be hasty, and you should balance frequently as to limit the impact on the ears and maximize your pleasure during the dive. If you’re having trouble balancing, it is useless to force harder or to try to continue the descent. It’s better to go up a bit to try again. If you just can’t seem to balance, you can try to continue your dive from this depth if you aren’t experiencing any pain or discomfort. If you are, however, it is better to end the dive. To have a better balancing experience, is it important to stay hydrated. This facilitates the release of sinuses. You can also try and open and close your jaw to open your Eustachian tube, which promotes the transfer of air into your sinuses.

Other balancing techniques

The Valsalva method is a rudimentary technique that is easy to use and efficient, but other equilibration techniques also exist. Some of them are more effective, but are more difficult to perform. A variant of the Valsalva is to pinch the nose and swallow simultaneously to balance, a technique known as the Lowry method. Another method used by freedivers is known as the Frenzel, which consists of pinching the nose and keeping the epiglottis closed which isolates the opening of the lungs. The next step is to  use the tongue to perform a specific ‘shot’ that looks like the movement you does when you swallow. Obviously, it is a more efficient technique, but it’s harder to master and therefore less accessible, unlike the Valsalva which is easily mastered and allows everyone to dive easily. Another technique of equilibration is the voluntary tubular open bite (BTV) which requires a lot of practice if not controlled naturally. It consists of being able to open the Eustachian tubes at will. This then allows for the balancing of the ears by letting the air pass through the sinuses so as not to be crushed by the external pressure.

The balancing of your ears is one of the elements of diving that causes the most trouble for new divers underwater. However, with a little practice and patience, it’s possible to be sufficiently comfortable with a technique so as to not be bothered by the ears during dives. Effectively, there is no point in forcing yourself down when diving, because this just elevates your risk of getting hurt. You have to learn to listen and know your body to make diving easier in the long run!

Alexandre Goudreau
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