First dive, I could not clear my left ear by 15 feet. Second attempt, I could not even clear at the surface but dove down anyway, pain stopped me at around 15 feet. I hung on the float for another 10 minutes trying to clear my ears without success.
At home, I used over the counter decongestants but could not clear the left ear. Doctor gave me prescription spray and that finally helped 3 weeks later, or nature took its course. But, even now I cannot reliably clear that ear even sitting in a chair.
First off, equalizing is something that affects ALL divers at some point if they dive enough, so it’s important to try not to feel disappointed in yourself or frustrated- just know that we’ve all been there. The first step is to come at this challenge with a calm and methodical approach.
Before beginning our evaluation and assessment, let me make a quick comment about doctors. In my mind, an ENT is the last resort for equalization problem. I don’t say that because I’m anti-western medicine. I say that because doctors look for one thing: a physiological problem. They don’t consider the many other variables that could be causing an equalizing problem because 1. they’re likely not trained in freediving and especially not advanced equalization techniques and 2. they’re doing what you asked, which IS to look for a physiological problem, which may not be your underlying issue.
Now, if your ears really hurt or you suspect an infection go to the damn doctor. But if you’re like the rest of us and you’re looking to improve your equalization, start here.
The three most likely problems, in order, are: Blockage/Congestion, Technique, Physiology.
This is the cause of about 65% of equalization problems I see. This is MY ear issue. And just because you don’t feel congested, doesn’t mean you don’t have all kinds of crap in your sinuses and eustachian tubes.
So to evaluate?
Step 1: Read this blog post. In it I explain how to prep your ears for diving. So if you can honestly say that you’ve completed items 1-4, then you’re on your way. I’m serious…taking Mucinex for a half a day does not count…it needs to be taken for at least a few days before it really starts to work. If you half ass any of these steps, you will not reap all the benefits and are setting yourself up for failure. And yes, for many of us that means giving up dairy. And yes, it’s completely worth it.
Step 2:Try to clear your ears while dry. If you still have problems, give the Mucinex a few more days and give yourself a few more days off dairy. Drink tons of water and try again. Still no good? We may be dealing with a technique issue.
Step 3: Try to clear your ears underwater. If it works, try it at depth. If you still have issues, keep reading.
This one is a little harder to explain FULLY via post but let me make a quick rundown of likely culprits:
1. You dive with your head back (i.e. looking where you’re going).
2. You pause too long between equalizations (I literally equalize non-stop as I descend).
3. You are tense (You have to relax your chest and abdominal muscles to equalize properly)
4. The holes in your hood that let water into your outer ears are not lined up over your ears or are nonexistent.
5. You are using Valsalva or one of a number of other flawed techniques. Frenzel is the most recommended. The good news here is that you CAN learn Frenzel. I just takes time, patience and practice. In fact, there is a great resource online run by Immersion Freediving, who offers hour-long Skype instruction on this technique. The $75 fee is well worth it. Check it out here.
Okay, you made it all the way down to this part of the list…but are you on Mucinex? Have you given up dairy? Is your technique perfect? Have you worked with Immersion Freediving via Skype to ensure you’re doing Frenzel? If so and you’re still having problems, then yes, it could be a physiological issue. I’ve met probably about four divers out of over a thousand who I would reliably say have a physiological impairment to equalizing. It happens. It’s about this time that I’d say, yes, go the the ENT and figure it out. But maybe run through this list a few more times, because if there’s any chance you don’t fall into this category, it’s worth looking into.
So my best guess for Charles? Probably a combination of congestion/blockage and technique. I would recommend Mucinex + hydration + a session or two with Immersion Freediving. Based on his account, he may also have been dealing with a post-dive ear squeeze, which would temporarily make equalization even harder than normal. In such a case, it’s best to rest the ear, avoid diving if possible and let it heal fully before going back at that equalization practice.
I hope this helps some of you who, like me, have had a hard time figuring out your ears. To this day I still have to take Mucinex, hydrate and avoid dairy for the week prior to extensive diving. but there is hope. Best of luck and happy diving.
Feel free to ask additional questions or to post your own tips in the comments section!
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor and all advice given is based solely on my years of experience as a Performance Freediving International Instructor and as a competitive freediving athlete.