How To Deal with Ear Clearing Issues While Scuba Diving | Sport Diver

How To Deal With Ear-Clearing Issues While Scuba Diving

Scuba diver has trouble clearing ears underwater photo

Ear-clearing problems lead many people to call their dives — or worse, stop diving altogether.

Gerald Nowak

You’ve been looking forward to your scuba diving vacation for months. Now it’s finally here, but on your very first dive, a (fill in the blank) problem has caused you to end it. You’re miserable, sitting on the boat while everyone else is in the water having a blast. How can you prevent these common issues — ear clearing, seasickness, leg cramps or being cold underwater — from ruining your vacation in paradise?

Don’t let these common issues keep you from diving! Read about:
Preventing Seasickness | Dealing with Leg Cramps | How to Stay Warm Underwater

Best Ear-Clearing Tips

You’ve descended to 10 feet when the pain in your ears starts. No matter what you do, you can’t equalize them. With these techniques and tricks, almost anyone can make equalizing easier.

Why It Happens: Divers need to equalize the “dead air” spaces in their middle ears, which are connected to the outer ears by eustachian tubes that run to the back of the 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 a painful middle-ear barotrauma, the most common pressure-related ear injury.

“Nothing wrecks a dive at the very beginning quite like ear-clearing issues,” says Kell Levendorf, director of training and development at Divers Direct in Key Largo, Florida. “Divers must fully understand that by the time they feel discomfort, they’ve already descended too far.”

How to Deal:

1. “Early and often is the rule,” says Levendorf. “I teach my students to perform their first equalization at the surface, before ever submerging. Clearing at one atmosphere, without any additional pressure, is a good way to test for ear issues and to loosen up the eustachian tube — much the way a runner stretches first.”

2. Divers should “always descend slowly — sometimes it helps to put the ear that won’t equalize toward the surface to straighten out the eustachian tubes,” says Jo Mikutowicz, managing partner of Divetech on Grand Cayman.

3. Using an anchor line to control your descent and descending feet first can also help. “We are taught to descend slowly and to equalize continuously as we pull down a fixed line,” says Liz Parkinson of Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas.

“This is a great guideline to work from and one to go back to if you ever have an ear-clearing problem. Do not force it — come up a couple of feet to a previous depth at which you were able to equalize and try again. For me, it is always my right ear. If I turn my head quickly to the side while descending, I block it, and I need to come up.”

4. Remember that the commonly taught ear-clearing technique Valsalva is not the only method for equalizing. “A couple more techniques you can try, other than the traditional pinch-your-nose-and-blow maneuver, are to move your jaw from side to side or try swallowing slowly,” says Parkinson. Some divers find that looking up toward the surface while equalizing helps.

For details on performing other equalization methods, read our article on alternative ear-clearing techniques.

When all these methods fail, the experts at Divers Alert Network say underlying conditions and issues could be the culprit.

Also, make sure it’s not an illness that’s making ear-clearing so problematic for you. Mikutowicz cautions: “Don’t ever dive with a cold or congestion.”

5. Finally, some things to avoid while you’re on a dive trip: dairy products, tobacco and alcohol, all of which increase mucus production.

Pro Tip: “If you have trouble clearing your ears, signal your buddy,” says Karl Shreeves, technical development executive at PADI. “There is absolutely no way for another diver to know you’re having difficulty equalizing unless you communicate.”

We've got lots of practical tips and advice on dive safety, health and training on the Training section of our website.