Scuba Diving: Listen to Your Ears; They’ve Got Something to Say!

May 15, 2011 by Michèle Veilleux

Scuba Diving: Listen to Your Ears; They’ve Got Something to Say!

Scuba diving is gaining in popularity across Québec, and more and more people are getting their feet wet. While this water sport is not without its risks, they can be avoided or minimized by taking proper precautions. Just listen to what your ears are telling you!

Before you jump in feet first, it’s important to understand that scuba diving is contraindicated for some people. Make sure you heed your doctor’s recommendations. For instance, scuba diving is not recommended for people with the following ear-related conditions:

  • eardrum perforations or tympanostomy tubes (ear tubes);
  • previous ear surgery;
  •  a history of perilymph fistulas;
  •  difficulty equalizing ear pressure (tube dysfunction);
  •  inflammation of the middle ear (otitis media);
  •  nasal congestion due to a cold, allergies or other causes.

Scuba divers are susceptible to a number of conditions of varying degrees of severity, ranging from simple, short-lived pain to irreversible injuries. The most frequently encountered injury in diving is ear barotrauma, which is caused by pressure differences in the ear.

Scuba Diving: Listen to Your Ears; They’ve Got Something to Say!

Other injuries include bruising of the auditory canal (outer ear). In the middle ear, divers may develop otitis, an accumulation of liquid behind the eardrum, usually caused by improper equalization. Divers may also have blood in the area around the eardrum or build up an accumulation of blood behind it, leading to bleeding. The eardrum can also be perforated and the mobility of the ossicles diminished; such cases often lead to deafness, but in most cases it is reversible. Finally, divers may also sustain injuries to the inner ear, which can lead to deafness, often permanent, as well as balance problems (vertigo).

Better safe than sorry!

The key to preventing barotrauma is to equalize pressure on either side of the eardrum. During descents, pressure is exerted on divers’ eardrums, causing them to flex inwards. Opening up the Eustachian tubes lets air in, equalizing pressure between the outer ear and the middle ear and restoring the eardrum to its initial position.

The Valsalva manoeuvre

The method most commonly used by divers to open up their Eustachian tubes is called the -Valsalva manoeuvre, a technique that could be described as “blowing air into your ears while pinching your nose.”

Scuba Diving: Listen to Your Ears; They’ve Got Something to Say!

Divers have to equalize pressure frequently on descent, especially during the first 10 metres when changes in pressure are the greatest. If you find yourself unable to equalize, ascend a few feet, equalize, and go back down. You’ll know that you’ve successfully cleared your ears when you hear a popping sound. If you still haven’t managed to equalize properly, it’s best to abort the dive.

For more information, see your audiologist, your family physician or your ear-nose-throat specialist.

- Open Water Diver Manual, PADI, 260 p.
- MILLS, R., D.A. NUNEZ and S.C. TOYNTON. Ear Trauma, chap. 237, Scott-Brown.