6 Methods to Equalize Your Ears

All methods for equalizing your ears are simply ways to open the lower ends of your Eustachian tubes, so air can enter.

VALSALVA MANEUVER | Pinch Your Nose and Blow

This is the method most divers learn: Pinch your nostrils (or close them against your mask skirt)  and blow through your nose. The resulting overpressure in your throat usually forces air up your Eustachian tubes.

But the Valsalva maneuver has three problems:

  1. 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.
  2. It’s too easy to blow hard enough to damage something.
  3. Blowing against a blocked nose raises your internal fluid pressure, including the fluid pressure in your inner ear, which may rupture your “round windows.” So don’t blow too hard, and don’t maintain pressure for more than five seconds.

Swallowing—and various methods of equalizing—are all ways of opening the normally closed Eustachian tubes, reducing the pressure differential between the outer ear and inner ear. The safest clearing methods utilize the muscles of the throat to open the tubes. Unfortunately, the Valsalva maneuver that most divers are taught does not activate these muscles, but forces air from the throat into the Eustachian tubes.

That’s fine as long as the diver keeps the tubes open ahead of the exterior pressure changes. However, if a diver does not equalize early or often enough, the pressure differential can force the soft tissues together, closing the ends of the tubes. Forcing air against these soft tissues just locks them shut. No air gets to the middle ears, which do not equalize, so barotrauma results. Even worse, blowing too hard during a Valsalva maneuver can rupture the round and oval windows of the inner ear.

Other Methods, Some Safer, Include:

PASSIVE | Requires No Effort

Typically occurs during ascent.

VOLUNTARY TUBAL OPENING | Tense Your Throat and Push Your Jaw Forward 

Tense 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.

TOYNBEE MANEUVER | Pinch Your Nose and Swallow

With your nostrils pinched or blocked against your mask skirt, swallow. Swallowing pulls open your Eustachian tubes while the movement of your tongue, with your nose closed, compresses air against them.

FRENZEL MANEUVER | Pinch Your Nose and Make the Sound of the Letter “K”

Close your nostrils, and close 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.

LOWRY TECHNIQUE | Pinch Your Nose, Blow and Swallow

A combination of Valsalva and Toynbee: while closing your nostrils, blow and swallow at the same time.

EDMONDS TECHNIQUE | Pinch Your Nose and Blow and Push Your Jaw Forward

While 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.

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. Try practicing in front of a mirror so you can watch your throat muscles.

When to Equalize

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. For example, a descent of six feet from the surface will compress your middle ear space by 20% and produce pain. But from 30 feet you’d have to descend another 12.5 feet to get the same 20% compression.

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.

Next: 10 Tips That Make Equalizing Easier >

How Your Ears Respond to Pressure

From simple cases of swimmer’s ear to the serious and sometimes lasting damage of barotrauma, divers are vulnerable to ear problems. The delicate mechanisms that govern our hearing and balance are not designed for the rapid pressure changes that result from diving.

Fortunately, ear injuries are preventable.

Your middle ears are dead air spaces, connected to the outer world only by the Eustachian tubes running to the back of your throat.

If you fail to increase the pressure in your middle ears to match the pressure in your outer and inner ears, the result is painful middle ear barotrauma, the most common pressure-related ear injury.

The key to safe equalizing is opening the normally closed Eustachian tubes. Each has a kind of one-way valve at its lower end called the “Eustachian cushion,” which prevents contaminants in your nose from migrating up to your middle ears. Opening the tubes, to allow higher-pressure air from your throat to enter your middle ears, normally requires a conscious act. Swallowing usually does it.

You equalize your ears many times a day without realizing it, by swallowing. The tissues of your middle ear constantly absorb oxygen, lowering the air pressure in those spaces. When you swallow, your soft palate muscles pull your Eustachian tubes open, allowing air to rush from your throat to your middle ears and equalize the pressure. That’s the faint “pop” or “click” you hear about every other swallow.

Scuba diving, however, subjects this equalization system to much greater and faster pressure changes than it’s designed to handle. You need to give it help.

Why You Must Equalize

If you dive without equalizing your ears, you can experience painful and damaging middle ear barotrauma. Step-by-step, here’s what happens when you DON’T equalize:

1At one foot below the surface water pressure against the outside of your eardrums is 0.445 psi more than on the surface air pressure on the inside. They flex inward and you feel pressure in your ears.
4At four feet the pressure difference increases to 1.78 psi. Your eardrums bulge into your middle ears, so do the round windows and oval windows between your middle and inner ears. Nerve endings in your eardrum are stretched. You begin to feel pain.
6At six feet the pressure difference is 2.67 psi. Your eardrum stretches further. Its tissues begin to tear, causing inflammation that will last up to a week. Small blood vessels in your eardrums may expand or break, causing bruising which will last up to three weeks. Your Eustachian tubes are now locked shut by pressure, making equalization impossible. Pain increases.
8At eight feet the pressure difference is 3.56 psi. If you are lucky, blood and mucus is sucked from surrounding tissues and begins to fill your middle ear. This is called middle ear barotrauma. Fluid, not air, now equalizes pressure on your eardrums. Pain subsides, replaced by a feeling of fullness in your ears which will remain for a week or more until the fluid is reabsorbed by your body.
10At 10 feet the pressure difference is 4.45 psi. If you aren’t so lucky—if your descent is very fast, for example—your eardrums may break. Water will flood your middle ear. The sudden sensation of cold against your balance mechanism (vestibular canals) may cause vertigo, especially if only one eardrum breaks. Suddenly, the world is spinning around you, though the sensation will probably stop when your body warms up the water in your middle ear. Or, if you try to equalize by blowing hard and long against pinched nostrils, you may rupture the round window membrane between your middle and inner ears. This is called inner ear barotrauma. Perilymph fluid drains from the cochlea into the middle ear. Temporary or sometimes permanent, hearing loss may result.

Next: 6 Methods to Equalize Your Ears >