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Fool Proof Methods Scuba Divers Use to Equalize Their Ears
By John Flanders, Master Instructor / Instructor Trainer
One of the first things we learn as Scuba divers is clearing our ears. Without this key skill, we are mere snorkelers, unable to breach 10 feet of depth. For most divers, clearing their ears is simplistic and routine. However, for those who have been out of the water for a while, or for those new divers who are still getting the hang of this, the following is a great primer on the different methods for clearing your ears while Scuba diving.
There are several methods and techniques used by divers. When it comes to clearing your ears underwater, it is very similar to clearing your ears in an airplane. The only difference is the rate of pressure change is much greater underwater than above sea level.
Of course, Practice Makes Perfect! Divers who experience difficulty equalizing may find it helpful to master several techniques. Many are difficult until practiced repeatedly, but this is one Scuba skill you can practice anywhere. A good tip is to try practicing in front of a mirror so you can watch your throat muscles.
The most common method for clearing ear is the Valsalva Maneuver. Most divers learn this method first. Pinch your nose and gently blow through your nose. The resulting overpressure in your throat usually forces air up your Eustachian tubes and equalizes the pressure on the ears.
But the Valsalva Maneuver has some problems: It does not activate muscles which open the Eustachian tubes, so it may not work if the tubes are already locked by a pressure differential. It’s all too easy to blow hard enough to damage something.
Another common method is the Toynbee Method. Similar to the Valsalva Method, with your nose pinched, swallow. Swallowing pulls open your Eustachian tubes while the movement of your tongue, with your nose closed, compresses air against them.
When all else fails, choose all of the above. If you are still having problems using the Valsalva and Toynbee, you can use the Lowrey Technique. The Lowrey Technique is a combination of Valsalva and Toynbee. While closing your nose, blow and swallow at the same time.
A less known, however effective, technique is the Edmonds Technique. The Edmonds Technique activates many of the muscles which open the Eustachian Tubes. This technique is accomplished by tensing the soft palate (the soft tissue at the back of the roof of your mouth) and throat muscles and pushing the jaw forward and down, do a Valsalva maneuver.
Another technique offered by many Scuba instructors is the Frenzel Maneuver. The Frenzel Maneuver is accomplished by pinching your nose and closing the back of your throat as if straining to lift a weight. Then make the sound of the letter "K." This forces the back of your tongue upward, compressing air against the openings of your Eustachian tubes.
Lastly, the Voluntary Tubal Opening is a great technique for clearing diver's ears. With the Voluntary Tubal Opening, a diver tenses the muscles of the soft palate and the throat while pushing the jaw forward and down as if starting to yawn. These muscles pull the Eustachian tubes open. This requires a lot of practice, but some divers can learn to control those muscles and hold their tubes open for continuous equalization.
The Number one rule for clearing your ears is to Equalize Early and Often!
When should a diver equalize their ears? Sooner, and more often, than you might think. Most authorities recommend equalizing every two feet of descent. At a fairly slow descent rate of 60 feet per minute, that’s an equalization every two seconds. Many divers descend much faster and should be equalizing constantly. The good news: as you go deeper, you’ll have to equalize less often - another result of Boyle’s Law (which is a whole other primer in itself). When you reach your maximum depth, equalize again. Though the negative pressure in your middle ear may be so small that you don’t feel it, if it’s maintained over several minutes it can gradually cause barotrauma.
Dive safe and have fun!