As a diver, you have almost definitely experienced that sharp pain in your ears as you descend or ascend too quickly – it not only hurts but you can cause permanent damage if you don’t address it immediately!
You probably remember, as you descend pockets of air become compressed, and as you ascend, they expand. This basic tenet of physics can be used to keep you afloat, but it also can cause pain and damage in your ear canal, where the air in your middle ear gets affected by your depth.
This air pocket is an important part of the acoustics of the ear, but it can be painful and irritating when the air isn’t cleared.
The ear has three sections; inner, middle and outer. The eardrum separates the inner and middle from the outer ear, and transmits the vibration of sound. The air in the middle ear serves as an echo chamber. As you go up and down in elevation, air can be adjusted by opening the Eustachian tubes, which are normally closed. Manually opening these tubes are the best way to clear your ears and equalize pressure in the middle ear.
There are a number of different ways to equalize your ears. Some are easier to perform for some people than others, so it’s best to find the method that is most effective for you. All of these are essentially ways to force air from the middle canal, and to put your head in a position to pull open the Eustachian tubes.
If you have sinusitis or physical complications like a deviated septum or collapsed tubes, you may need some extra help before you can clear your tubes effectively. Sinusitis is temporary, and can be flushed with saline or combated with a decongestant. Be careful of diving deep or using Nitrox in conjunction with meds, though. They can increase your risk of oxygen toxicity.
If you don’t have congestion but still can’t clear, you may need extra help. Speak with an ear nose and throat doctor to see if they can diagnose a reason for your difficulties, and suggest intervention.
I can still hear my dive instructor in my OW course repeating, “Early and often!” when he was instructing us on clearing our ears.
By early, you really should begin before you even hit the water. Start wiggling your jaw or whatever method works best for you while you’re gearing up. Clear again on the surface and continue clearing every few feet. If you can’t clear and you feel the associated pain, ascend a few feet. Don’t continue to descend and “hope your ears will figure it out.”
The damage from not equalizing can be permanent and painful. Barotitis media occurs from air pressure in the middle ear. Blood and fluid can leak into the middle ear. You’ll need to see a medical practitioner and with drugs and time, the ear can heal, although sometimes it takes several months. Flying can be a problem until the ear heals.
This can occur when you “blow” too hard, damaging the delicate membranes. You may vomit, feel dizzy and suffer hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing ears).
This is your eardrum, which can be perforated or ruptured from pressure. You need to stay out of the water or risk severe vertigo and see a doctor right away.
Need some instruction and a demonstration from an expert? Stop by Scuba Toys in Carrollton, Texas and our dive masters can help you!
What’s your tried-and-true technique for clearing your ears? Let us know in the comments section below!
Image attribution: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wwarby/