How to Equalize

All methods for equalizing your ears are simply ways to open the lower ends of your Eustachian tubes so air can enter.

VALSALVA MANEUVER | Pinch Your Nose and Gently Blow

This is the method most divers learn: Pinch your nostrils (or close them against your mask skirt) and exhale through your nose. The resulting overpressure in your throat usually pushes air up your Eustachian tubes.

Diagram of the superior canal, oval window and round window of the ear

But the Valsalva maneuver has three problems:

  1. It does not activate muscles which open the Eustachian tubes, so it may not work if the tubes are already locked by a pressure differential.
  2. It’s too easy to blow hard enough to cause injury.
  3. Blowing against a blocked nose raises your internal fluid pressure, including the fluid pressure in your inner ear, which may rupture your round windows. Don’t blow too hard, and don’t maintain pressure for more than five seconds.

Swallowing — and various methods of equalizing — are all ways of opening the normally closed Eustachian tubes, reducing the pressure differential between the outer ear and inner ear. The safest equalizing methods utilize the muscles of the throat to open the tubes. Unfortunately, the Valsalva maneuver that most divers are taught does not activate these muscles, but forces air from the throat into the Eustachian tubes.

That’s fine as long as the diver keeps the tubes open ahead of the ambient pressure changes. However, if a diver does not equalize early or often enough, the pressure differential can force the soft tissues together, closing the ends of the tubes. Forcing air against these soft tissues just locks them shut. No air gets to the middle ears, which do not equalize, so barotrauma may result. Even worse, blowing too hard during a Valsalva maneuver can rupture the round or oval windows of the inner ear.

Other Methods, Some Safer, Include:

PASSIVE | Requires No Effort

Typically occurs during ascent.

VOLUNTARY TUBAL OPENING | Tense Your Throat and Push Your Jaw Forward

Tense the muscles of the soft palate and the throat while pushing the jaw forward and down as if starting to yawn. These muscles pull the Eustachian tubes open. This requires a lot of practice, but some divers can learn to control those muscles and hold their tubes open for continuous equalization.

TOYNBEE MANEUVER | Pinch Your Nose and Swallow

With your nostrils pinched or blocked against your mask skirt, swallow. Swallowing pulls open your Eustachian tubes while the movement of your tongue, with your nose closed, compresses air against them.

FRENZEL MANEUVER | Pinch Your Nose and Make the Sound of the Letter “K”

Close your nostrils, and close the back of your throat as if straining to lift a weight. Then make the sound of the letter “K.” This forces the back of your tongue upward, compressing air against the openings of your Eustachian tubes.

LOWRY TECHNIQUE | Pinch Your Nose, Gently Blow, and Swallow

A combination of Valsalva and Toynbee: while closing your nostrils, exhale and swallow at the same time.

EDMONDS TECHNIQUE | Pinch Your Nose, Gently Blow, and Push Your Jaw Forward

While tensing the soft palate (the soft tissue at the back of the roof of your mouth) and throat muscles and pushing the jaw forward and down, do a Valsalva maneuver.

Practice Makes Perfect

Divers who experience difficulty equalizing may find it helpful to master several techniques. Many are difficult until practiced repeatedly, but this is one scuba skill you can practice anywhere. Try practicing in front of a mirror so you can watch your throat muscles.

Next: When to Equalize >