How Often Should You Equalize When Scuba Diving?
Beginners and experienced divers alike can have trouble equalizing water pressure on a dive.
In this article I’ll go over how often you should equalize each air space for a safe and comfortable dive.
How often should you equalize when scuba diving?
There are four air spaces that we equalize when diving – ears, lungs, mask, and sinuses. The golden rule is to equalize early and often, so I’ll explain exactly what that means for each air space.
So What Does Equalizing Mean?
One of the first elements of dive theory you’ll learn in dive class is pressure. As you descend underwater, the weight of the water pressing against your body increases, creating water pressure.
This doesn’t affect most of our body, because our tissues – like skin and muscle – are made primarily of water and have the same density as water.
The only way you feel the water pressure is when it presses on the air spaces in your body.
Think about blowing up a balloon full of air and taking it to the bottom of a pool – the balloon will shrink as the water compresses the air inside.
We have four air spaces that we need to account for underwater: ears, lungs, mask, and sinuses.
We equalize the pressure in those air spaces by adding air to them as we descend and the air compresses, then releasing air from them as we ascend and the air expands.
Learning when to equalize each air space is an important skill that experienced divers master for a smooth and comfortable dive.
When divers talk about “equalizing,” we’re usually talking about our ears.
There is an air space in the middle ear that gets compressed as you descend, and you need to add air to it to prevent damaging your eardrum and other small organs.
It sounds complicated, but it’s actually easy to add air into your ear from your throat by performing the Valsalva maneuver – hold your nose and blow. If that move doesn’t work for you, you can also wiggle your jaw, swallow saliva, or begin a yawn for a similar effect.
It’s important to equalize your ears early and often. So what exactly does that mean? Equalizing early means while you’re descending and before you feel any sort of discomfort.
Equalizing shouldn’t feel like much, besides a gentle “pop” within your ears. If you feel pain in your ears, you’ve already gone too far, and you’ll have to ascend a bit and try equalizing again.
As for “often,” most dive organizations advise that you equalize every meter, which is about every three feet.
For my beginner students, I advise them to equalize more often than that as they get used to the feeling of changing pressure and learn which technique works for them.
If you’re doing a free descent, it’s important to control your descent carefully with your breathing and fins so that you have enough time to equalize often. A quick descent can leave you with inflamed – or worse, damaged – ears.
After the initial descent, you will have to equalize again if the dive site gets deeper. The same rule applies – early and often!
The good news is that you generally don’t have to worry about equalizing on your ascent. As the air in your ears expands, it will come out naturally in your breath.
The only time you might run into trouble is if you’re congested and the air gets trapped. If that happens, let your guide know you’re having ear trouble and ascend as slowly as possible, giving the trapped air a chance to work itself out.
As important as your ears are, your lungs are actually your most important air space. Luckily, they’re also the easiest air space to equalize!
In your first dive class, your instructor will tell you that the most important rule of scuba is to never hold your breath.
That’s because breathing continuously is all you need to do to equalize the pressure on your lungs. That means we equalize our lungs constantly while underwater.
The lungs are the most important air space and require constant equalization because any damage to them could be fatal.
As you descend and the water pressure increases, your regulator delivers air at the same pressure to your lungs from your tank.
The most dangerous part of holding your breath with compressed air is that if you ascend, the air in your lungs will expand. At best, the expanding air could cause a mild lung overexpansion.
At worst, the lung could rupture or throw an air embolism into another part of the body, which could be deadly.
If you accidentally drop your regulator from your mouth, you can still protect your lungs while you recover it or grab your buddy’s reg.
Just blow some air gently out of your mouth to make sure that if you accidentally ascend a bit, the expanded air is safely coming out of your mouth. Then you can pop your regulator back in and continue your dive.
Many divers don’t think about equalizing their mask until they come back from a dive with mask lines or – rarely – bruises around their eyes.
The air in your mask gets compressed as you descend, and can cause a “squeeze” if you don’t equalize it.
Although we’re trained to breathe in and out using only our mouths in scuba, equalizing the mask just requires a short puff of air out of the nose. This adds more air into the mask and prevents it from suctioning to your face.
As an instructor, I’ve rarely seen a mask squeeze cause problems for divers, probably because we frequently clear water from our masks by blowing into them. However, it’s good to equalize your mask often on your descent and pay attention to any discomfort so you can recognize a squeeze. If during the dive you drop to a deeper section, you may need to equalize your mask again. You won’t need to equalize on the ascent, as the expanding air will make its way out in your breath.
The anatomy of sinuses (in red color)
Sinuses are tiny air spaces within the face. We usually don’t notice them unless we have a cold and our sinuses get congested – then we feel pressure in our forehead and cheeks. The sinuses will naturally equalize themselves when we equalize our ears.
The golden rule applies to equalize early and often.
You’ll notice if you’re congested because you’ll have trouble descending, and you may feel pressure or pain in your forehead or other parts of your face.
Unfortunately, that means you shouldn’t dive. There is no safe way to clear congested sinuses and continue the dive.
If you take decongestants before a dive, they could wear off in the middle of the dive. That means that your sinuses will become filled with compressed air that won’t be able to escape as you ascend.
If you do feel pressure on the way up, try to ascend as slowly as possible to allow your sinuses to clear.
You may have to enlist the help of your guide or buddy to provide you with more air while you wait.
Parsing the physics and techniques of equalization can seem intimidating to divers. With experience and patience, equalizing skills will come naturally, and eventually you won’t have to think about it at all!
What’s your go-to equalization technique? If you have a question or something to add about equalization, leave a comment below!
11 Tips to equalize your ears when scuba diving
How to pop your ears? It sounds ominous but how to equalize your ears when scuba diving is an important page in your diving techniques portfolio. Our ears are made of three different components: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. Scuba divers are working with the different pressures between the outer and middle ear when learning how to equalize ears. Discover different diving techniques to learn how to pop your ear safely as your ears adjust to the different pressures underwater. As we descend, the pressure on the outer ear increases, while the pressure on the inner ear remains the same. We need to equalize the pressure by forcing air through the Eustachian tube to the middle ear. Simply put you need to know the best way to pop your ear or how to equalize your ears. As we descend, we need to increase the pressure in the middle ear and as we ascend, we need to decrease the pressure in the middle ear. If you do not equalize your ears when diving you may do serious damage to your ears, or cause a barotrauma. Always be conscious of ear pain and practice the equalizing techniques below to know how to pop your ear.
How to pop your ear??
If we descend without equalizing our Eustachian tubes become blocked or collapse from the outside pressure. Keep reading for my 11 diving techniques on how to equalize ears.
11 Diving techniques on how to equalize ears
1/ How to equalize ears – start at home
We equalize our ears naturally without realizing. Every time we swallow or yawn our Eustachian tubes are pulled open adjusting the pressure in our middle ear. I know as I have gotten older my hearing has worsened, so I am careful not to do any more damage. The diving techniques I use to equalize my ears begin the night before the dive. I make a point of swallowing and doing neck stretches to open my Eustachian tubes. Scuba diving generally equates with early mornings so it is easy to start equalizing from home with big yawns and a stretch. Chewing gum can also help as it causes you to swallow.
2/ How to equalize ears – continue on the boat
Take a flask of warm water with you and have a few mouthfuls. The warm water and proper hydration stops your Eustachian tubes becoming sticky, enabling them to open more easily. Continue to swallow, yawn and stretch on the boat. Consider it a mini workout for your ears. They will thank you, and hopefully respond by opening your Eustachian tubes. Be proactive so you know how to pop your ears and equalize the pressure. Move your jaw from side to side, before you have to deal with a regulator in your mouth.
SHOP SCUBA GEAR
3/ How to equalize ears – in the water
Once you have entered the water, tilt your head backwards to give your neck and throat a big stretch. You may also stretch your neck from side to side, tense your neck and push your jaw forward and down. These stretches help open your Eustachian tubes. Start equalizing before you descend.
4/ How to equalize ears – The Valsalva Maneuver
The Valsalva Maneuver is the go to method when you want to know how to make your ear pop. Pinch your nose and gently exhale through your nose. Pinching your nose shut will hopefully redirect the exhaled air to your Eustachian tubes forcing them open.
5/ How to equalize ears – The Toynbee Maneuver
I find the Toynbee Maneuver more effective than the Valsalva Maneuver but harder to do. For the Toynbee Maneuver press your tongue against the roof of your mouth, pinch your nose and swallow. Breathing through the regulator dries my mouth and I have trouble swallowing. This is my back up when I am trying to figure out how to get my ear to pop.
SHOP SCUBA GEAR
The Valsalva, Lowry, and Toynbee Maneuvers
6/ How to equalize ears – The Lowry Maneuver
Still having touble and don’t know how to make your ear pop? The Lowry Maneuver combines the Valsalva and Toynbee Maneuvers. Pinch your nose, exhale gently and swallow at the same time.
7/ How to equalize ears – equalize early and often
Start equalizing on the surface and as you descend perform one of the above methods every half metre or so. I always start with the Valsalva Maneuver and move to the other methods if I am having difficulty. Equalize early and often.
8/ How to equalize ears – go slow
Once you begin your descent, go slowly. My son has a lot of trouble with his ears and as his buddy I always stay with him and we take our time. Slow and steady wins the dive. Josh & I will quite often dive a few metres above the group until his ears clear. For me I have trouble with my ears until about 8 metres and then I’m fine. Everyone is different. I go at my own pace, quite often slowly. Never feel pressured to rush your descent, especially if you feel pain.
SHOP SCUBA GEAR
9/ How to equalize ears – descend feet first
Remain vertical, fins pointing down, legs slightly bent to lesson water resistance, deflate and exhale and begin a controlled descent. Descending feet first keeps your head higher and at less depth, giving your ears more time to adjust with less pressure.
10/ How to equalize ears – use a mooring line
If you can, use a mooring/anchor line. Using a mooring line allows you to control the speed of your descent, it also enables you to move up and down the line without having to worry about current.
Stop. I’m having a problem equalizing my ear. It’s ok.
11/ How to equalize ears – stop if it hurts
Stop and go up a little bit if your ears are hurting and repeat the above methods. Some dives I hardly have to equalize, others dives I am continously equalizing and it is a slow descent. Listen to your body, if your ears are really painful stop and go up slowly. As I mentioned Josh has a lot of trouble with his ears and has had to call a dive on more than one occasion. Your health and safety always come first in diving.
SHOP SCUBA GEAR
Remaining at the same depth can cause your Eustachian tubes to be caught in the pressure. How to make your ear pop? Ascending a metre or two will release the pressure and you will more likely be able to equalize.
It’s never too late – TAKE THE DIVE WITH TANYA
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How to Equalize your Ears While Scuba Diving
Learning the Why and How’s of Equalization During Scuba Diving
Being underwater – be it through snorkeling, free diving or scuba diving – is a wonderful way to enjoy a completely different world to our land one. But by exploring this new world, our bodies are exposed to physiological changes created thanks to the difference between air and water.
Your Ears and the Underwater World
Your body is filled with “dead air spaces.” One of these dead air spaces is the air space within our middle ear. The middle ear is sealed by the eardrum and connected to the outer world by the Eustachian tubes running at the back of your throat.
In normal everyday conditions, when the outside pressure is normal, the Eustachian tubes are closed. But as we descend in water, for instance, during a dive, the pressure of the surrounding water is higher than what we are used to on land. This causes the water to press against the eardrum bending it inward. To adapt our ears to this pressure difference, and restore the lost volume we must compensate by sending air into the inner ear through the normally closed Eustachian tube.
Interesting information: The deeper we go the more the water pressure increases with the greatest pressure change occurring in the first 10 meters (33 feet).
A Guide on Equalization Methods
If you’ve been down to the bottom of a deep pool, flown in an airplane or driven to the top of a high mountain – the feeling of increased or decreased ear pressure will be a feeling that is familiar to you. This feeling is very similar when it comes to snorkeling, freediving and scuba diving.
There are several different ways people decide to equalize. Most involve some combination of exhaling, swallowing or nose pinching. Although each technique is slightly different, no one method is superior to the other. At the end of the day, it is important to pick the one that works best for you.
The Valsalva method is one of the most common methods that involves exhaling gently against a closed airway. The slight over-pressurization in the throat forces air up into the Eustachian tubes. To do the Valsalva method, a person simply pinches the nose and gently blows into it, with an emphasis on GENTLE. Blowing too forcefully can lead to barotrauma.
Another equalizing technique is the Toynbee Manoeuvre. To undertake this method first the nose is pinched close then the equalizer swallows. Swallowing encourages the muscles of the throat to open the Eustachian tubes. This method can sometimes feel more natural and experienced divers might even get to the point where all they need to do is swallow.
The Frenzel maneuver requires the person to close off the vocal cords. This is done by simulating lifting a heavyweight. With the vocal cords closed the nostrils are pinched shut and the person tries to make a “K” sound. The combination of the movement of the tongue paired with the plugged nose compresses air upwards against the tubes.
The Lowry technique is very similar to the Valsalva and Toynbee methods. It requires the person to pinch closed their nostrils, apply pressure by gently exhaling and swallowing.
The Edmonds technique combines either the Valsalva or Frenzel maneuver with a jaw thrust/head tile. To do this a person selects the aforementioned method and tags on moving their jaw from side to side or forwards and backward. If this isn’t preferred they can also rotate their head up and down
What Happens When you Don’t Equalize
While descending into the water column, the pressure of the surrounding environment increases. If we don’t equalize, this pressure pushes on the eardrum causing pain inside the ear. If we fail to stop or slow our descent this pressure could lead to a middle ear squeeze (blood and fluid forced into the middle ear) and/or a Tympanic Membrane Rupture (also known as a perforated eardrum).
This is why it is important to understand equalization. Never continue the dive if you find yourself unable to equalize your ears.
Common Ear Equalization Problems When Diving
1. Waiting too long
The most common ear-related issue divers face is waiting too long to equalize, and then struggling. Waiting too long to equalize often leads to pain and pressure in the middle ear. The best scuba diving practice is to equalize early and often.
Most dive pros agree that every 2 feet (or half a meter) is a good rule of thumb. As you go deeper, you may find you need to equalize less often. But, you’ll still need to compensate for pressure if you change depths during your dive.
2. Not pinching off both nostrils properly
In order to equalize, it’s important to apply equal pressure to both sides of your ears. This can be done by fully pinching off the nose and attempting one of the methods outlined above. Wearing a mask that fits well also helps.
When you are shopping for a mask, be sure that the nose pocket fits closely. Too much space around your nose makes it more difficult to grasp.
3. Diving with sinus pressure or congestion
Any mucus or blockage in the sinus cavity or Eustachian tube can prevent proper equalization while scuba diving. Failure to equalize can lead to intense pressure, pain, and even barotrauma.
Diving with sinus issues or congestion is never a good idea. If you suffer from seasonal allergies or are prone to sinus problems, discuss them with your doctor before diving.
Tips and Tricks for Equalization
There are a handful of ways to equalize and as long as you find a technique that works well for you, it doesn’t matter how you get there.
- Practice at the surface: Ease your nerves and Eustachian tubes into dealing with pressure changes by practicing at the surface. If you can’t add pressure to your middle ears on land, you won’t be able to underwater. Adopt either of the above techniques and work on it at the surface or in a pool until you feel adequate. You should feel the “pop” or “click” of equalization.
- Blow up a balloon: I’m not one to encourage single-use plastic, but in this case, inflating a birthday balloon 10 times prior to heading in the water really helps get those Eustachian tubes open and ready for changes in pressure.
- Chew gum: Some scuba divers find that chewing bubble gum prior to diving and during their surface interval helps. The movement of the jaw can stretch the Eustachian tube, making it easier to open.
- Lookup: While it is important to know where you are descending and what you are descending onto, extending your neck up helps open and stretch the Eustachian tubes. Looking down can cause a kink or fold in the tube, blocking the passage of air.
Safety Note: The look-up tip is not recommended for freedivers as it may contribute to blackouts.