Being able to equalise your ears quickly and effectively may not be something you have ever given much thought to. And if so, lucky you! However if it is something you have struggled with, whether it be as you attempt to follow your scuba diving instructor deep down into an alluring underwater world, or your flight begins its descent before landing, you will be MORE than aware of this invaluable skill and very keen to master it. The discomfort of not being able to equalise your ears can be pretty intense!
And it is not always as straightforward as people make it out to be. When having difficulties achieving that magic ‘pop’, most people will advise you to pinch your nose, shut your mouth and blow out… et voilà! This is the Valsalva Manoeuvre and the most commonly taught technique with divers. But it does come with its problems.
First of all, not everyone can use it as effectively as others and if you blow too hard you can rupture the ‘round windows’ within your ears (not good). And secondly, if your tubes are all blocked up with fluid (for example if you have a cold, flu, infection or hayfever) then you are unlikely to be able to get through as easily, which will further encourage you to blow too hard.
So to help you avoid discomfort during your travels, whether you are airborne or submerged, here are some useful tips to remember.
Start Early: Start working on your equalisation techniques before you feel any discomfort. A common problem is not waking up in time for the initial descent when flying, and the longer your ears have to build up a pressure difference the harder it is to open up your Eustachian tubes (which connect your inner ear to your throat) to allow air into your ear.
Swallowing: This is a well-known technique and often the reason you would give a child sweets during landing. But it is something adults should be prepared for too. The real benefit of this technique is that the swallowing action uses your throat muscles to manually pull open the valves to your Eustachian tubes. It is quite tricky to learn how to open these valves consciously but fortunately swallowing usually does the trick without you having to think about it! And it is much safer than simply blowing air at your tubes and hoping they will be forced open.
Voluntary Tubal Opening: This technique involves tensing your throat and pushing your jaw forward. You need to try and tense the muscles of your soft palate and throat, while pushing the jaw forward and down as if starting to yawn. With a lot of practice some divers have managed to use this technique to hold their tubes open for continuous equalization as they dive - this is the goal to aim for!
Toynbee Maneuver: This involves pinching your nose and swallowing at the same time. The swallowing pulls open the Eustachian tubes while the movement of your tongue, with your nose closed, compresses air against them.
Preparation: If you know you are going to encounter difficulties try and be ready for it! Make sure you have some hard sweets to hand for flight landings. If you have a cold, infection or allergy, take a decongestant or antihistamine tablets the day before you fly. And if you are preparing for diving take some time to practice your equalization techniques – after all, as soon as you jump in the water you will want to start looking out for those beautiful reefs and fish, rather than thinking about your ears!