The underwater world is unlike anything else. As a freediver, you know how good it can feel to explore a coral reef or discover a new ocean creature. But with every dive, there’s one nagging worry at the back of your mind – freediving ear pain. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced freediver, this is something you have likely dealt with.
There are two leading causes of freediving ear pain: pressure changes and ear infections. The good news is that freediving ear pain does not have to be a permanent issue. To alleviate any discomfort, there are several solutions you can try – from learning effective equalization techniques to investing in special freediving ear plugs.
First, let’s look at what causes ear pain while underwater – so you can better understand how to prevent it.
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The most common cause of ear pain while freediving are environmental changes. On dry land, the air pressure around us is relatively consistent. At sea level, the atmospheric pressure we feel is around 1013 millibars. This is neither high nor low; it is standard. However, this pressure can fluctuate drastically if you travel to higher altitudes or dive underwater.
In terms of freediving, one aim for many freedivers is to dive as deep as possible. As you dive deeper, the pressure around you increases. The 1013 millibars we feel on dry land are equivalent to around 0.9 atmospheres. As we dive deep underwater, the pressure increases by approximately 1 atmosphere every 10 meters. Therefore, at 30 meters, the pressure we feel has tripled to 3 atmospheres – three times higher than on dry land!
Pressure can affect various parts of the body, including your ears. This is because your ear canals are essentially a tube (the Eustachian tubes) filled with air. When the environmental pressure changes, it causes the air pressure inside your ear also to change. As the pressure increases, the air inside your ear canals compresses, and you may feel slight discomfort or a ‘squeeze.’
If we do not fix this issue, the pressure will continue to increase and cause severe freediving ear pain. As a result, specific medical problems can occur, such as barotrauma.
Barotrauma is the medical term for when any part of the body is injured or damaged due to pressure changes. There are varying levels of seriousness when it comes to ear barotrauma. For example, when we fly or ascend too quickly, we can experience a ‘minor’ form of barotrauma. This is known as the ‘ear popping’ sensation many of us have felt while in a plane.
However, while freediving, ear barotrauma can occur when someone dives and fails to equalize their ears correctly. If air pressure is not released from the Eustachian tubes, it can cause a variety of issues, such as:
- Damaged eardrums, including bruising, rupture, or hemorrhage
- Painful swelling of the eardrums
- Mild to severe hearing loss
- Facial paralysis
The pressure changes felt underwater and barotrauma are no joke. Learning what to do if you get ear pain or discomfort is essential to avoid these unpleasant issues.
It is never ideal to experience ear pain during a freedive, but it can happen. So, what exactly should you do if you feel any discomfort? Here are a few tips to follow if you experience ear pain while freediving:
If you feel any form of discomfort, it is crucial to stay calm. In an underwater environment, it can be easy to panic, and this will only worsen the situation. Relaxation is a key skill when freediving, so be sure to practice it!
It is essential to find the right equalization technique for you. Some people may prefer one method, while others may use something else. The water pressure will increase the deeper you dive, so equalizing as often as possible is important.
If you cannot equalize, you must stop the dive and ascend. You should never continue diving if you’re experiencing pain or discomfort. It may be wise to take a break from diving for a few days and focus on developing your equalization techniques to avoid any further issues.
Equalization is the process of releasing small amounts of air into your Eustachian tubes to compensate for any pressure changes. This technique can effectively reduce any potential discomfort or damage and even help you reach deeper depths while freediving.
There are a variety of exercises and techniques you can use to equalize your ears. Learning these may take some time, but with enough practice, you can learn to equalize quickly and effectively.
Let’s look at some of the best equalization techniques to try if you experience freediving ear pain:
This is a popular and relatively simple equalization technique. All you need to do is close your mouth, pinch your nostrils and gently blow out. This will increase the air pressure in your throat, which should open the Eustachian tubes.
The Frenzel Maneuver involves closing your mouth, pinching your nostrils, and making the sound of a ‘K.’ This movement pushes air up your throat, which helps to open the Eustachian tubes. This is a slightly more advanced technique and requires practice to become familiar with it.
The Voluntary Tubal Opening (VTO) is the most challenging technique to master. If you can successfully complete the VTO equalization technique, do know that you are one of the few who can! This equalization maneuver requires you to manipulate the air within your mouth with your tongue. You will use your tongue like a piston, pushing air up the throat and into the Eustachian tubes.
For a closer look at freediving equalization and the above techniques, be sure to check out our dedicated article on the topic!
Equalization is the only way to reduce ear pain during a freedive naturally. With enough practice, you can learn to master your equalization technique and not worry about pressure changes when freediving.
Regardless if you equalize your ears perfectly during a dive, you can still experience freediving ear pain. Oceans, lakes, and swimming pools are all full of potential contaminants, and if you are exposed to these for too long, they can cause issues. It could be as simple as chlorine or salt in the ear canal or something more serious like a bacterial or fungal infection.
Ear infections, or ‘swimmers ear,’ are a common issue not just among freedivers – but also scuba divers, surfers, and swimmers. Essentially anyone who spends a lot of time in water can develop problems with their ears. This is because water can easily get trapped in the ear, creating an ideal environment for bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms to grow.
If you experience any pain or discomfort after a freedive, you should consider to seek medical attention. Symptoms such as persistent ear pain, discharge, or swelling of the ear may indicate something more severe and should be treated as soon as possible.
But as always, prevention is better than cure. We can do certain things before, during, and after a dive to avoid freediving ear pain – including utilizing equipment such as freediving ear plugs.
Now you understand why you may experience freediving ear pain and how equalization can help – there are also other steps you can take to avoid any issues. Freedivers often keep their equipment to a minimum, but if you often experience ear pain, you may want to invest in some of the following items:
Not to be mistaken for traditional ear plugs, freediving ear plugs are designed with freediving in mind. Standard ear plugs will block air and make equalizing impossible. And as we know, equalizing is vital for our ear health during a freedive.
Freediving ear plugs will feature a vent. These vents can work in one of two ways: to allow a small amount of water to enter the ear or to let air escape when equalizing. This will help maintain the pressure in your ears, allowing you to dive deeper with less pain.
When choosing the correct freediving ear plugs for you, be sure to check the following specifications:
- They fit snugly in your ear
- You can equalize while wearing them
- They feature a vent
- Are made especially for freediving
Not all freediving ear plugs are the same, so be sure to read reviews before making a purchase. It is also important to note that with freediving ear plugs, one size does not fit all, so it may take some time to find a comfortable and practical pair.
The Doc Proplugs are by far the best freediving ear plugs on the market. These tried and true vented ear plugs allow water to trickle into your ear. This helps to equalize pressure, so you can keep diving deeper with less pain.
These freediving ear plugs have become a favorite among freedivers as they can help to reduce the risk of barotrauma. And not only are they great for freediving – they are very affordable too.
Many freedivers also opt to wear a hooded wetsuit. A hood creates a streamlined silhouette and reduces the amount of water that may enter the ear canal. Plus, a hood provides much-needed insulation and will help you stay warm underwater.
When choosing a freediving hooded wetsuit, be sure to check the following:
- It has a tight seal around your face and ears
- Made from a durable material
- It is made for freediving, not scuba diving
- Are comfortable and allows you to move freely
For instance, have a look at the Riffe DIGI-TEK Camo Freediving Wetsuit.
Most freediving wetsuits come with hoods attached, but if not, you can invest in a separate hood. There are various styles, from beanies to full-face hoods, so be sure to choose one that suits your needs. One brilliant option is the Sharkskin Covert Hood with HECS StealthScreen Technology, which fits snugly around your face and ears.
This hood is made with HECS conductive carbon fibre. This revolutionary technology manages to reduce the body’s electric signals, in turn making you less detectable to underwater marine life. While it won’t stop the pressure from building, it can reduce the amount of water that enters your ears.
Having water in your ears can be very uncomfortable, and it can also lead to infection. If you find water lingering in your ear after a freedive, it may be time to invest in an ear dryer.
Ear dryers work by using a gentle stream of warm air, which helps to dry out the ear canal. Of course, you could use a regular hair dryer, but it is unlikely you would carry one of these with you on a freediving trip – or have somewhere even to plug it in.
The Mack’s ear dryer is a portable, cordless, battery-operated device explicitly designed to dry out the ear canal. It is safe, easy to use, and can completely dry your ear in just one minute. Mack’s Ear Dryer even comes with multiple color-coded nozzles, so you can share it with your freediving buddies.
While equipment can help to prevent ear pain while freediving, it is essential that you take the necessary steps to protect your ears at all times. Whether you have sensitive ears prone to infections or are worried about the pressure effects underwater – there are a few things you can do to help prevent ear pain:
Dehydration can cause the mucus membranes inside your ears to become sticky. When this happens, it can make it very hard to equalize correctly as the air will not be able to pass through. So, make sure you drink enough fluids before a dive!
Whether it be allergies or a cold, never attempt to freedive if you have a blocked nose. Not only will this affect your breath hold capabilities, but it will also stop you from successfully equalizing your ears.
Many freedivers swear by olive oil or almond oil drops, which are an effective way to keep your Eustachian tubes lubricated. Simply pour a few drops into each ear before diving and see how this method works for you. The plus side of this method is that oil repels water, which may help avoid ear infections.
We’ve said it once, and we are saying it again! Equalizing is vital for preventing ear pain. So, make sure you do it early and often – as soon as you start to descend and at regular intervals afterward. It is not enough to just equalize once; it is an ongoing process.
Some freedivers choose to descend feet first, as this helps with both equalizing and managing pressure changes. It can be fairly difficult to descend feet first – and does not always allow you to go as deep as you may want. Using a weight belt can help you descend quicker, all while keeping your head upright.
If you are still experiencing ear pain while freediving, you might want to invest in some freediving ear plugs. As we have previously advised, these freediving ear plugs help to reduce the pressure on your eardrums, helping to reduce ear pain. However, they are not a substitute for proper equalization techniques. Make sure you use freediving ear plugs in conjunction with your chosen equalization method.
You should always clean your ears with fresh water after a freedive – especially if you have not dived in a freshwater environment. We don’t want to allow any bacteria to settle and cause an infection.
Using ear drops after every freedive is a great way to keep your ear canal healthy and prevent any infections. You can either purchase ear drops from a pharmacy or make your own solution at home. A freediver’s favorite DIY ear drop solution is a mixture of rubbing alcohol and white vinegar, which helps to keep the moisture and bacteria in your ear canal at bay.
Yes, we know they seem like the perfect way to keep your ears clean, but they can be pretty damaging – pushing debris and bacteria further into your ear canal. So, it is best to stay away from those cotton swabs and clean your ears with fresh water and/or ear drops!
By taking the above precautions, you should be able to enjoy freediving without worrying about ear pain. However, if you are still feeling discomfort, it is best to consult a doctor before attempting any more dives. Remember, it is better to be safe than sorry – so have fun and stay safe underwater!
No one wants to cut a freedive short because they don’t know how to manage ear pain. By following the tips outlined above and practicing proper equalization techniques, you should be able to freedive with ease – and no ear pain! So, drink plenty of fluids before a dive, consider using freediving ear plugs and equalize early and often.
And finally, remember to clean your ears properly after each dive and consult a doctor if the pain persists. These simple steps will help you become an expert at managing freediving ear pain in no time – and you can get back to enjoying the wonders of the underwater world!