How Do Scuba Divers Deal With Ear Pressure?

How Do Scuba Divers Deal With Ear Pressure?

It’s happened to all of us, every single one of us – but you may not have even realized when it did. It may have been on a plane – coming down to land, it may have happened on an elevator dropping down to the ground level, or even happened when you went for a swim as a child and tried to touch the bottom of the pool.

We live in a world dominated by pressure and sudden changes in this pressure are almost always felt first in the ears and it’s more noticeable when pressure is increasing as opposed to decreasing, but that’s not always the case. 

When it comes to water and Scuba Diving, the deeper we go the more pressure we will feel. This pressure is particularly felt in our ears. So how do Scuba divers deal with ear pressure?

In this article we will discuss:

  • Cause of Ear Pressure
  • Removing Ear pressure
  • When equalising does not work
  • Reverse block
  • Protecting your ears
  • Ear infections

Without further a do, let’s jump in!

Why Do We Feel Ear Pressure?

When on the surface, we experience 1 bar of atmospheric pressure. With every 10m depth, 1 bar is added. Therefore, when going from the surface to 10m, the pressure doubles!

We feel this pressure change in our ears as the pressure pushes against our ear drums.

As the pressure doubles in the first 10m, this is the biggest pressure change and when we feel ear pressure the most.

So what’s really going on here?

Anytime a Scuba discussion starts, you will hear the word ‘pressure’ being brought up numerous times. But what is pressure and how does it affect our ears? 

All the air and other gas molecules in the atmosphere – from the edge of space down the sea level, exert pressure on everything. The Earth’s gravity and magnetosphere primarily keep all these molecules, mostly Nitrogen, Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide from floating away into the stellar medium.

But why don’t we feel all these molecules all the time?

Because we have evolved, like almost all land animals, to exist under this amount of pressure. All these molecules form what we call one atmosphere and it’s where we live almost all our lives! So it’s no real surprise we don’t feel it constantly in our everyday lives, but it’s there and it can be extremely important.

So we feel 1 Bar of Atmospheric pressure here on the surface. When we descend down 10 meters, this doubles. With every 10 meters, another 1 Bar of pressure builds up!

If the diver descends down to say, 30 meters, they will have four atmospheres of pressure on their bodies, which means a lot of ear equalization along the way down.

How do we remove ear pressure?

We remove ear pressure with ear equalization. The two main methods of removing ear pressure are the Valsalva manoeuvre (holding your nose and blowing) and moving your jaw from side to side. It is important to remove ear pressure as you descend to prevent damage to your ear drum. 

By the time a diver has descended 10m, they are likely to have equalized a few times!

The first method is called the Valsalva manoeuvre and is the act of holding both your nostrils closed with your thumb and forefinger, usually with your left hand, as your right hand should be deflating your Buoyancy Control Device (BCD) as you descend. 

While holding your nostrils closed, and your tongue up against the roof of your mouth, you gently try to blow out of your nose.

You will feel the air being pushed back from your nose and into the tubes that connect our nose with our ears –ultimately countering the pressure behind our ears drums with the pressure the water is exerting as we go deeper.

These tubes that connect our ears and our nose are called Eustachian tubes and then run from the back of our nose, up under our eyes and around to each ear. This is why when we have a cold, we can often feel pressure under our eyes and in our ears as an infection messes it all up with gunk. 

The other main way Scuba Divers equalize this pressure in their ears is by moving their jaw from side to side until their ears automatically pressurize or try to fake a yawn until the same thing happens.

If you are a non-diver and haven’t tried these two techniques before, give them a try now. Even without the extra pressure, most people can feel the ‘click’ in each ear as you move your jaw or push air back against your nose.

Don’t worry if nothing happens without a pressure change, as when the time comes and you are under pressure both techniques should work with no problems!

Ear equalisation is another Scuba diving skill which you can improve over time

Are There Other Ways To Equalize My Ears?

Yes, while the two most common are described above, there are actually many different techniques including yawning, swallowing, the Toynbee manoeuvre (pinch the nose and yawn or swallow), the Frenzel manoeuvre (pinch the nose and click your tongue), chewing gum or medication (which can have issues as we discussed above).

Some devices may help: special earplugs that allow air to flow from outside into your ear; an Otovent which is inserted into each nostril and uses a balloon; and, an EarPopper, which is inserted into a nostril and then you push a button.

However, none of these devices is suitable for Scuba diving and is used exclusively by people who have issues flying.

What If Equalizing Your Ears Does Not Work?

Equalizing does not always work! A good Trick is to ascend one meter and try equalizing again before descending further. It can be frustrating and painful when you are trying to descend and you cannot remove the pressure from your ears.

stay calm, and try to equalize using different techniques!

But what if they don’t work I can hear you say? Well, nothing is foolproof and plenty of divers encounter ear and pressure issues that affect their diving. Often a cold, as we discussed or worse – influenza will fill up your Eustachian tubes with snot, flem and other gunk. 

These symptoms can make it very difficult to equalize when diving and it’s actually recommended you not dive at all if you are affected by one of these illnesses.

If you are feeling fine and you still have trouble descending as you can manage to equalize one or both of your ears – you have two options.

One is to ascend a meter or so and try again with less pressure on your ears. This works most of the time and often some divers can take a while to descend as they have to keep going up again to get their ears to equalize. 

Struggling to equalise can often happen when you descend too fast while diving, so try to take it slow on the descent!

The other option is to end the dive and ascend. Unfortunately, there are some days when our ears just do not want to dive, and we have to respect that.

Many people end up with ear troubles by trying to equalize too much, too hard or waiting for the pressure to become painful before trying. These are self-inflicted issues that are usually associated with brand new divers, who are not quite listening to their instructors. 

If you inflame your eardrums in this way, you may have no choice other than to rest for a few days and take some anti-inflammatory medication.

On the way back up, our ears will self-equalize almost all of the time, so while you descend and have to constantly equalize – the opposite happens on the ascend.

You will feel your ears releasing air to stay in equilibrium with the reduction of water pressure. It’s an almost pleasurable feeling for many. Occasionally, however, it won’t work as it should and an issue called a reverse block happens.

What Is Reverse Block?

A reverse block is the opposite of ear pressure. It happens during the ascend, as the air in the middle ear expands. To prevent this from happening, ascend slowly. If it becomes painful, descend to increase pressure on the air, then slowly ascend again.

Reverse block happens very infrequently and throughout a thousand dives, you may only ever see someone else have it once it’s so rare. But when it happens, it is a big deal. The air cannot escape your ears or pressurize itself with its surroundings. 

A reverse block can happen if someone has a cold and continues to dive by taking pseudoephedrine to reduce their symptoms. Partway through a dive, the medication becomes less effective or stops working altogether leading to a reverse block.

Not diving with a cold will reduce the chances of experiencing reverse block down close to zero.

If it does happen, the best practices are the opposite of when we would do when trying to get a diver with ear issues down – we drop down a little to increase the pressure and reduce the pain, move our jaw around a load and then try to come up again. 

This will often allow the diver to make small steps back up again and can require another tank of air to be dropped down if it takes a long time. The only alternative would be to ascend to the surface and try and deal with it then. 

This is not the greatest idea, but circumstances may mean that this is the only option you have.

In this case, medical attention should be immediate and they will try to use mediation and some techniques to unblock your ears before using a barometric chamber as a last resort to re-pressurize your ears out of the water.

Ears and ear pressure can be one of those things that are totally fine until that one time they are not.

But constantly equalizing as we descend and not diving when we have a cold or flu means that most divers can go through their whole life without ever having any troubles at all.

But like most things, knowing how to mitigate and treat an issue if it arises will keep you safe and diving far into the future.

How Can I Protect My Ears When Scuba Diving?

It is hard to protect your ears when diving, but some methods include ear plugs, being patient and gentle with your ears while descending, or even a mask with its own ear muffs. There are even some ear sprays to prevent ear infections which have been proven effective.

However, the best option to protect your ears is to avoid Scuba Diving while you are sick. 

It is easy to dive in with your ears open to the water, but what if you have very sensitive ears or eardrums? There is an option of wearing earplugs under the water!

But make sure these plugs are specially designed for Scuba Diving, or they may start to get pushed into your ears by the water pressure. Or worse, one could get stuck in there creating another issue altogether.

The best idea is to purchase a speciality mask that has its own earmuffs.

These masks are specifically made for people prone to ear infections but are good for anyone who wants to keep their ears as dry as possible. 

They have a little ear muff that covers each ear and a small tube that acts like a Eustachian tube external to your body, running around your head and into the mask. This allows you to equalize the air space around your face and in the earmuffs as you dive and should keep your ears as dry as possible.

Pretty cool, right?

Can You Scuba Dive With A Swimmers Ear?

It is painful and not always possible to dive with ear infections. If you are suffering from an ear infection, you should see a doctor. You will likely be given antibiotics, and once the infection is cleared you can Scuba dive.

Scuba diving with an ear infection will only make the infection worse, as water has lots of little microbes!

Swimmers ear is an infection of your ears. You will need to undergo a course of antibiotics while keeping your ears dry to resolve the issue.

Even if you have done the time and the course, you still may have residual issues in your ears and it’s not at all recommended you dive with an ear infection or unresolved ear issues.

Even if you can equalize on your descent, you risk having issues on your ascent and encountering a reverse block. After reading the reverse block description above, including the consequences – any reasonable person should decide that now is not the time for a Scuba dive. 

Medical issues such as ear infections are an important reason why you need travel insurance for Scuba diving. Good travel insurance such as DAN can cover hospital trips and the cost of antibiotics. 

If you have any ear issues at all, you should not Scuba dive until the issue is resolved and this goes to any medical issue that affects your ears, nose or throat or affects your ability to equalize comfortably and easily.

Don’t Forget Your Dive Insurance!

Before you go out on any dive trip or holiday, it is essential to make sure you have insurance that covers you if something goes wrong. Check out our dive insurance article for more information.

Or go straight to these dive insurance company websites:

DiveAssure

Diver Alert Network (DAN)

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Final thoughts

This article has talked about what ear pressure is, and why we feel it in our ears when we go Scuba diving. There are multiple methods to remove pressure and equalise our ears, the most popular being the Valsalva manoeuvre. 

It is important to be gentle and careful with our ears, as our eardrums are sensitive and can be easily damaged. But if you are careful and patient, you should not have any problems!

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Paul Fulbrook

Paul Fulbrook is a writer, scuba diver, ex-science teacher and marine biologist. He has a passion for coral reef biology, diving on coral reefs and writing about diving. He also loves cats and his children (sometimes).

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