Ear pressure: there are nine effective techniques that can be used to equalize your ears | Photo: Shutterstock

Ear pressure imbalance - that niggling discomfort that we've all experienced at one point or another, in or even out of the water.

It's that pesky sensation that feels like your ear is stuffed with cotton, and sounds are muffled.

But why does it happen, and what can we do about it?

Whether you're a novice surfer, an advanced diver, or merely interested in understanding the phenomenon, this comprehensive guide explains, informs, and provides practical solutions to this temporary yet unpleasant condition.

Understanding Ear Pressure Imbalance

Ear pressure imbalance is primarily caused by changes in atmospheric pressure that can occur during various activities and events, such as:

  • Flying on an airplane;
  • Scuba diving;
  • Surfing;
  • Ascending or descending mountains;
  • Driving through elevations;
  • Suffering from infections like sinusitis and the common cold;

The Eustachian tubes - tiny passageways connecting your middle ear to your throat - try to equalize this pressure.

However, rapid or significant pressure changes can overwhelm these tubes, leading to a pressure imbalance and subsequent discomfort.

Surfers can experience it, for instance, while underwater rock running or during extreme wave hold-downs.

Surfer's ear, the wave-riding-related condition known as exostosis, can also worsen the ear pressure imbalance symptoms.

Ear canal: ear pressure imbalance is primarily caused by sudden changes in atmospheric pressure that cannot be equalized by Eustachian tubes | Illustration: Creative Commons

Techniques and Tips to Equalize Your Ears

When it comes to managing ear pressure imbalance, there's no one-size-fits-all approach.

Several techniques exist, and they can be used based on your comfort level, the event causing the pressure imbalance and the severity of your symptoms.

Here are the most effective methods for equalizing your ears.

Valsalva Maneuver

Named after 17th-century physician Antonio Maria Valsalva, this method is used to equalize ear pressure during fast-changing altitude conditions like airplane take-offs and landings and while ascending during a dive.

Here's how to perform the Valsalva maneuver:

  1. Take a deep breath;
  2. Pinch your nose shut;
  3. Gently attempt to exhale through the nose to open the Eustachian tubes and balance the pressure;

Toynbee Maneuver

This technique involves manipulating your throat muscles to open your Eustachian tubes, which is helpful for slow altitude changes, for instance, when ascending or descending mountains.

Here's how to perform the Toynbee maneuver:

  1. Pinch your nose shut;
  2. Swallow to create negative pressure in your middle ear;

Lowry Technique

It combines the Valsalva and Toynbee maneuvers and can effectively open the Eustachian tubes to equalize pressure.

Here's how to perform the Lowry technique:

  1. Pinch your nose closed;
  2. Simultaneously swallow and blow gently;

Frenzel Maneuver

This maneuver activates the muscles that open the Eustachian tubes, a favored technique for scuba divers and surfers as it can be performed underwater.

Here's how to perform the Frenzel maneuver:

  1. Pinch your nose shut;
  2. Make the "ng" sound, as in the word "song";

Edmonds Technique

This technique, developed by Australian diving doctor Carl Edmonds, involves moving your jaw to open the Eustachian tubes.

Here's how to perform the Edmonds technique:

  1. Push your jaw forward and down;
  2. Execute a Valsalva maneuver;

Voluntary Tubal Opening

Some people can naturally open their Eustachian tubes, a skill requiring training and muscle control.

Experienced divers often use this technique as it can be performed without hands and allows continuous equalization.

Here's how to perform the voluntary tubal opening:

  1. Contract the muscles of the soft palate and throat while keeping your mouth closed;

Tilting Your Head

Simple but effective, tilting your head can sometimes help to open up the Eustachian tubes.

The side you tilt your head towards may experience more relief, so if both ears need equalizing, you'll need to lean in both directions.

How to do it:

  1. Tilt your head to one side or the other;

Wiggling Your Jaw

A motion that is as simple as moving your jaw can stimulate your Eustachian tubes to open.

This simple maneuver can be performed anywhere and is particularly useful during airplane ascents and descents.

Here's how to do it:

  1. Move your jaw side-to-side as if you were chewing or talking;

Swallowing

The act of swallowing can activate the muscles that help equalize ear pressure.

Here's how to do it:

  1. Swallow normally. Sucking on a lozenge or drinking water can stimulate swallowing if needed;

Surfers: exostosis can worsen the ear pressure imbalance symptoms | Photo: Shutterstock

What to Avoid

While the need to equalize ear pressure is crucial, some methods can potentially harm you:

  • Avoid vigorous and forceful attempts at the Valsalva maneuver;
  • Overdoing it can damage your eardrums or inner ear structures;
  • Chewing gum or yawning excessively can tire your jaw muscles and cause discomfort;

Remember never to force equalization, as it can lead to more harm than good.

It's crucial to note that everyone's body responds differently to each technique.

Thus, what works best for one person may not necessarily be the best option for you.

Always listen to your body and consult an otolaryngologist if you have persistent issues with ear pressure.

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