Equalizing When Scuba Diving

Equalizing when scuba diving is the first discipline divers have to learn in order to descend and stay at depth for any period of time.  An ongoing practice that for most divers becomes second nature over time, but this isn’t necessarily the case for all and can be something that requires time and patience to master.  Lets look closer at this skill and address problems that can occur and the ways to solve them.

Equalizing – What is it?

Our ears consist of three main sections – the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear.  The middle ear has a ‘dead air space’, and as a result it is the area most commonly affected by pressure change – this is experienced during scuba diving and also common when flying in an airliner. As you descend on your dive, the pressure surrounding your body increases, but the pressure in your middle ear remains the same. This imbalance of pressure can be very uncomfortable and if not managed correctly can cause the ear drum to rupture (Middle-Ear Barotrauma).

In order to equalise this pressure in the middle ear, it is necessary to establish higher-pressure air from the back of the throat. We are able to do this because the middle ear has a connection to the throat and outer ear by the Eustachian tubes. These small tubes are kept closed naturally by a one-way valve called the Eustachian cushion. To allow air to pass through this valve from the throat, divers must learn to open it by using one of several equalization techniques.

The most common way taught to new divers during their certification training is known as the Valsalva Maneuver. By pinching your nostrils together and blowing gently, air is forced to flow through the Eustachian tubes and into your middle ear. There are several other methods that can be used to achieve the same results including swallowing, and moving your jaw either in circles or from side-to-side.

Common Problems Equalizing when Scuba Diving

For many divers the Valsalva Maneuver is the only technique they are taught. This method works well as long as you use frequently throughout your dive.  However, if you wait until you feel discomfort before using this technique it often will not work, as the outside pressure has already risen too high and the Eustachian tubes can become locked shut.  Attempting to force the air through at this point can result in damage to you inner ear tissues.

In this case, a good option is to pinch your nose whilst swallowing (a technique called the Toynbee Maneuver), or you can try moving your jaw as if are just about to yawn. These methods reply on the muscles in your throat – rather than air pressure – to help open the Eustachian cushion, and are usually a more effective way to release the valves if they are already locked shut.  Obviously, the easiest and safest course of action is to equalize every few feet before the pressure becomes too great and causes discomfort.

For those who experience issues equalizing when scuba diving, it is usually just a case of adopting a technique that works for you and adjusting your descent procedure to allow time for equalization to happen.  Descending slowly and not rushing the process should allow for a comfortable dive.  Using a line to help with the decent is very useful as it allows one to easily stop mid-water and even ascend slightly to relieve the pressure before attempting greater depth.

Sometimes the reason for equalizing problems has nothing to do with the technique you are using and more to do with your body’s health on that day.  In these cases the most common root cause is congestion.  A cold can lead to inflammation and a buildup of mucus in the Eustachian tubes, making it impossible to let air flow through and equalize the middle ear.  The safest way forward if this is the case is to just wait until the symptoms subside.  Medication can also help but carries a risk of wearing during the dive, leaving you with little option other than ascending or ending you dive early.  Certain foods such as dairy products can also lead to congestion, so try removing these from your diet if you consistently have problems.