January 2012 Beyond the Valsalva
One of the very first skills taught in open water course is, for some people, the most difficult to master. In fact, it is probably the number one reason that a student either does not complete the course or does not continue diving. Whether you are having trouble clearing your ears on descent due to a cold or congestion, stress, or any other reason, it can be a frustrating endeavor, but there are solutions.
It is no mystery why we feel pressure in our ears while descending. For each foot we descend, we experience an increase in pressure of ½ pound per square inch. This is why it is imperative that a diver equalize early in the descent and often during it. What can a diver do to make this process easier?
First it is good to know how to equalize. Most divers are familiar with the valsalva maneuver in which the nose is closed off and the diver gently blows against it, but there are more methods than that. If this technique alone doesn’t do it, try contracting the throat muscles with a closed glottis (the Frezel), or attempt to swallow (the Lowry) while doing the valsalva. For some divers, closed mouth yawning or swallowing with nose and mouth closed (Toynbee method) will do the trick. Some people find that the action of clearing their mask while descending helps with equalization.
In addition to using one or more of the methods for equalizing, your descent position and technique can actually help to make your dive pain free. Start by gently performing one of the equalization techniques at the surface. This will give a little extra air in the sinuses and ears before descent. Descend feet first, holding on the down line if possible. This acts to assure a slow descent and provides a way to immediately stop your descent at the slightest sign of discomfort. As you descend, continue to clear every two feet for the first 10-15ft., then every 4 ft. for the rest of the descent. If you do not feel your ears opening, ascend slightly and try again. It may also help to tilt the plugged ear upward. The name of the game here is patience! Trying to equalize through the pain will only cause damage. If you are experiencing pain in your ears, you are too deep!
Psychological stress can also play a role for those who have a history of difficulties clearing. Don’t allow yourself to be rushed. Descend at your pace, not anyone else’s. Usually, if you explain to the divemaster that you have difficulty clearing and that you must make a very slow descent, they will help you be among the first in the water to allow the maximum amount of descent time. If you simply cannot get to the planned depth, in clear water, it may be possible to stay with the group, keeping an eye on them from a shallower depth. It is imperative, however, that you communicate plan to your dive buddy and the dive leader.
Finally, if none of these strategies work, you will have to abort the dive and seek the advice of a qualified ear, nose and throat doctor that is familiar with diving. Diver’s Alert Network can help you find someone in your area. The doctor may uncover a subclinical ear infection and treat it, prescribe an ear drying solution, steroid nose spray, or come up with some additional strategies for clearing. For some, a surgical remedy such as removing enlarged tonsils may be available. The search for solutions to your ear trouble, in any case, it is worth the effort if it allows you to focus on the fascinating sights and the fun of a dive trip rather than the potential for pain in your ears.
In Other News…………
Remember that the shop will be closed Friday, January 13, reopening at 4pm Monday, January 23, 2012 for our trip to Barbados. Stop in after the 23rd for stories and pictures of our Team Manta Adventure!
Are you hard at work recruiting dive buddies? Sign them up for a Try Scuba experience. The next offering is February 16 at 1pm. Prior registration is required and enrollment is limited.
Get more bottom time with Enriched Air. This is one of the few PADI specialties that do not require open water dives, so you can earn your Enriched Air specialty in 2 evenings and stay perfectly dry! Our next Enriched air course will be held April 2 and 4, 6:30 to 8:30pm at the shop.