Many beginner freedivers find great success in their early dives only to be suddenly limited by the increasingly painful pressure squeezing against their ears and eyes due to the mask. Unfortunately, the good old pinch-and-blow method that people do when on airplanes or on mountains stops working, and new freediving equalization methods need to be utilized.
In this guide, we will go over the popular freediving equalization maneuvers that freedivers use to equalize the pressure and alleviate middle ear pain. Each technique has their advantages and disadvantages, and some will be harder to perform than others. But with frequent practice, you can eventually master and possibly even modify one of these techniques to make it more suited for you.
Why Do We Need to Equalize While Freediving?
Our body has small spaces where air lingers. When exposed to pressure changes during freediving, it can result in barotrauma (a pressure related injury). Thus, any pressure changes in the facial air cavities and mask must be equalized with the help of several equalization methods to prevent blocked ears from occurring.
Keep in mind that what is needed for equalization can be different from person to person, and that there is no ‘correct’ technique that one must use at certain depths.
The Valsalva Maneuver (Pinch and Blow)
The Valsalva maneuver is named after Antonio Valsalva who was the first person to document the pressurization of the middle ears. To perform it, simply pinch both nostrils closed with one hand and then forcefully exhale by contracting your diaphragm.
This squeezes the air from the lungs into the middle ear if the Eustachian tube is open, equalizing the ear against the external water pressure. This is probably the most common technique that freedivers use. In fact, people who have been on an airplane or up a mountain have probably already done this technique.
With that said, this technique is only effective in shallow waters. At depths of 30 meters or more, it is rendered ineffective because there is not enough air left in the lungs to equalize the pressure in the sinuses and ears. Furthermore, this technique relies on contracting the lung muscles, which uses up pressure oxygen.
The greatest strength of the Valsalva maneuver is how easy it is to learn and use. The disadvantages are that it wastes precious air and is slow to fully equalize both ears during a fast descent. At deep depths, it requires significant diaphragmatic effort which not only consumes oxygen, but can result in barotraumatic injury to the lungs and ears at depth.
The Frenzel Maneuver
The Frenzel Maneuver was pioneered by the Luftwaffe commander Herman Frenzel who instructed dive-bomber pilots on their use during World War II. The basic idea of this technique is to close one’s vocal cords as if they were lifting a heavy weight. Meanwhile, pinch the nostrils closed and try to make a “k” or “guh” sound. Doing so will force the back of the tongue to rise and elevate the “Adam’s Apple” of the throat.
This also makes the tongue push air up like a piston. The Frenzel maneuver can be done relatively easily and conserves more oxygen than the Valsalva maneuver. Furthermore, it can be performed numerous times in succession quickly while underwater and is effective even at depths of 80 meters.
The BTV/VTO Hands-Free Maneuver
The BTV maneuver stands for “Beance Tubaire Volontaire” and it was first used in the 1950s by the French navy. This technique is capable of equalizing the middle ear and it is also known in English as “Voluntary Tubal Opening.” Unfortunately, this hands-free technique is difficult to perform, and roughly only 1 in 3 people can use it reliably.
The general idea is that while underwater, flex the muscles surrounding your Eustachian tubes to “open” them. The tubes haven’t actually opened, however the nearby muscles will prevent them from contracting despite the increasing water pressure. This makes it more likely that the air from your lungs will move to the Eustachian tubes, which helps maintain equal air pressure.
To perform this maneuver, the muscles of the soft palate are contracted while the upper throat muscles are simultaneously pulling the Eustachian tube open. This maneuver is highly reminiscent of what the throat muscles are doing during a yawn. Similar to how very few people can wiggle their ears, not everyone can effectively perform this maneuver at will.
The strength of this technique is in its energy conservation, as well as how safe it is to use compared to other equalization techniques. However, training the muscles surrounding the Eustachian tubes is difficult, and some may find it impossible due to their small size. Additionally, a slower descending speed may be necessary, and this technique may not be as effective at depths below a diver’s residual lung volume.
The Saline/Sea Water Wet Equalization Maneuver
This maneuver is to be performed when the diver can no longer equalize with air. First, allow water to flood the sinuses. With sea or saline solution in the sinuses, the freediver does not need air in order to equalize the pressure in the sinuses and middle ear anymore. Next, the freediver can use the Frenzel maneuver to force water into the inner ear and reduce the air space further.
This method is difficult to perform and significant training is required to prevent aspiration of water into the lungs and drowning. Furthermore, improperly performing this technique can result in infection of the sinuses and ears, vertigo, blackout, impaired motor control, and lung or trachea barotrauma.
However, when performed perfectly, the wet equalization method can make rapid descents possible. Furthermore, it may be used at depths far below residual lung volume.
The Toynbee Maneuver
The Toynbee maneuver is named after Joseph Toynbee, a man who lived in the 1800s who was one of the first to identify the crackling sound due to the anatomical opening of one’s Eustachian tubes when swallowing.
The technique involves pinching the nostrils shut while swallowing. Doing this allows the muscles in the back of the throat to open up the Eustachian tube and let out some air to equalize if a gradient is present. While performing the Toynbee maneuver during a freedive, there is a low chance of it failing to work if the Eustachian tube doesn’t equalize on the first try.
Mask Equalization while Freediving
In order to equalize the pressure in the mask, simply exhale a small amount of air through the nostrils into the mask. This is the reason why one cannot simply wear swim goggles, which have no nose pocket, when freediving.
Typically, when performing the popular Valsalva or Frenzel maneuvers to equalize ear pressure, some lingering air will leak out of the nose and into the mask and thus equalize the mask as well. At deeper depths, it becomes more difficult to equalize the mask when the air volume in the lungs is reduced.
As such, many top freedivers who regularly dive to great depths forgo wearing a mask or rely on Fluid Goggles, which are filled with liquid and thus do not require equalization.
Freediving Equalization Tips
There are numerous factors which make freediving equalization difficult. The first and most prevalent one is the fact that when descending, you are head down. Since air is always traveling up, the air that you are trying to equalize will go to the highest point (which is your lungs while facedown), and away from your ears.
While we cannot do anything about our head position while descending, below we will go over some basic tips that can help freedivers equalize their ears, some of which can even be done out of the water.
It’s always a good idea to be well-hydrated and it is no exception when it comes to freediving equalization. If one is hydrated, their mucous lining will become thinner and less sticky. This makes it easier for the Eustachian tubes to let air pass through without impediment.
Our head is going to be pointing downwards while descending, there is nothing we can do about that. However, we can slightly alter our head position to make equalization easier. First, keep your head in a neutral position (how you would keep it when standing straight).
Avoid the urge to look toward the bottom (tilting your head up) as this stretches out and creases the Eustachian tube. This can make it extremely difficult for you to equalize and thus you should avoid it at all costs.
Be liberal when equalizing. Yes, equalizing too much can waste some energy. However, many beginner freedivers go to the opposite extreme where they wait until they feel unbearable discomfort before equalizing. That’s already too late. Equalize BEFORE you begin to feel any discomfort.
Always pre-equalize prior to a dive, and while underwater, equalize frequently. A habit of mine is whenever my left leg kicks forward, I equalize. Establish a good habit of equalizing liberally so that you never feel any discomfort.
Do not continue descending if you cannot equalize the pressure in your sinuses and ears. If you feel any pain or discomfort, do NOT push past it, as this can cause injury. For example, ruptured eardrums are common and may result in permanent hearing loss.
Additionally, an injured ear can result in sinus squeeze and can result in permanent damage to the skull. Should you find yourself unable to equalize the pressure, then you should be resurfacing immediately.
People who experience respiratory congestion due to allergies or cold may want to look into passive nasal irrigation or using a Neti pot. Passive saline irrigation, when used directly, may provide significant relief of cold and allergy symptoms in the nasal passages and sinuses.
Cold water can make equalizing one’s ears difficult. With the assistance of vented ear plugs such as JBL Hydroseals or Doc’s Pro Plugs, you can more easily equalize in cold water. These ear plugs designed specifically for underwater equalization work by allowing a small amount of water to enter the ear canal and trapping it there.
The water will get warmed up by the body’s temperature, providing a cozy environment for your inner ear. The small hole venting is designed so that additional cold water will not enter and flush out the warm water from the ear canal. Equalizing with warm water against your eardrums has a higher chance of success compared to cold water.
By applying these tips above, you should be able to more reliably equalize your ears and make freediving that much more enjoyable.
As mentioned above, there is no “correct” equalizing method as it is a very individual thing. Not everyone does the same equalization method exactly, over the years different iterations of the techniques outlined in this guide have been developed and perfected.
For instance, I personally push my jaw downwards and outwards while swallowing to equalize. It works for me, but I don’t know it would work for you. The important thing is to keep an open mind and give everything a shot. You won’t really know what works best for you without significant trial and error.
Physiology of Equalizing
To help you understand how the air has to travel in order to equalize the pressure in your ears, this section will provide some context. First, the tube that stretches to the lungs is the Trachea. The epiglottis is a small flap that, when open, allows air to pass through, and when closed, directs food and water away from the larynx and windpipe.
The tube that leads to the stomach is the esophagus. The opening to it is generally closed, except during the act of swallowing when food needs to enter the stomach. Next, air flowing in or out of the lungs is guided by the soft palate. It can be fully opened, closed, or neutral so that air can enter from the nose and mouth simultaneously.
When the soft palate is fully raised, the nasal cavity is blocked off, and only air from the mouth will pass through. When lowered, only air from the nose will pass through. The goal is for air to reach the Eustachian tubes in the nasal cavity. By performing the equalizing techniques outlined in this guide, air will be able to reach the Eustachian tubes and equalize the ears.
You will be able to equalize your ears using any of the maneuvers outlined in this guide and break through your plateaus. A word of advice: if your current diving record is limited because of pain caused by the water pressure, the techniques taught in this article will remove those limits. This is both a blessing and a curse.
Some beginners, eager to reach new depths, may decide to dive farther than they have ever gone and forgetting that they must save enough energy for the swim back up. By dramatically increasing one’s depth potential in such a short time, following proper dive progression and staying cautious is necessary now more than ever.
After all, all of the risks associated with freediving are still present. Furthermore, equalizing gets increasingly difficult at deeper depths. Forceful equalization with the diaphragm at depth increases the chances of suffering lung and ear barotrauma. Always have a diving buddy in case of blackouts, lung squeeze, or barotraumas.