Pressure in your sinuses, your ears, or even your mask while freediving can be extremely uncomfortable and lead to serious problems if you don’t address the situation.
Ear pressure can be uncomfortable and painful, and if you don’t take care of it properly, it can cause lasting damage to your eardrums and sinuses.
Learning how to equalize ear pressure while freediving is one of the most important things to learn about before diving.
Why Do You Get Ear Pain when Freediving?
Understanding why you experience ear pain in the first place will make it easier to understand how the techniques to alleviate ear pain will help you and how they work.
When you are on land and experience a change in altitude, your body can adjust to this change in pressure automatically.
Most people feel their ears pop when they change altitude very quickly, such as when taking off in a plane, and this helps to release the extra pressure and stop the pain.
The pain that we experience in our ears can be caused by pressure changes outside the eardrum, which results in the eardrum bending inwards. If the pressure behind the eardrum in the inner ear is higher, this causes the eardrum to extend itself outward.
This excessive movement of the eardrum causes pain either way.
We also have pockets of air throughout our bodies. When the pressure in the external environment changes, it increases the pressure on the air spaces.
Our sinuses, eustachian tubes, and tympanic cavities have little air pockets. The change in pressure causes the air in these areas to compress, which causes pain.
Equalization while Freediving
When freediving, the focus is on equalizing pressure in the sinuses, the middle ear region (the space behind the eardrum, which is connected to the throat and the Eustachian tubes), the lungs, and the mask.
As we free dive, the external pressure on our body rises as we sink to greater depths. If we can use equalization techniques to fill these cavities with air, it will equalize the pressure and prevent pain and injury.
You will reverse when you ascend from a dive to equalize again.
To equalize ear pressure, you will use one of two techniques: Valsalva or Frenzel.
Knowing how to equalize your mask and sinuses is critical, so your entire ENT (Ear, Nose, and Throat) system is equalized when diving.
When you are first practicing the techniques, we recommend doing so in front of a mirror to better see your face. This way, you can see how your mouth, nose, nostrils, and cheeks behave as you practice the techniques.
This will make it much easier to develop a mind-to-body connection.
Valsalva is a great technique for beginners to understand how the soft palate, the vocal fold, and the tongue interact as we breathe.
The idea is very simple—you pinch your nostrils closed and close your lips relatively tight, so no air escapes from your mouth or nose. You then tighten your abdominal muscles to push air from your belly into your sinuses and ears.
Start by taking a deep breath—then close your nose and mouth, and slowly push air into your sinuses and your nasal cavity. You will feel a gentle pop, and your ears should open up a little.
This is a great technique for those who love scuba diving and remain relatively close to the water's surface.
The problem is that this technique becomes harder and less effective as you approach greater depths.
Under intense pressure (beyond 60 feet or so), the pop it creates in your ears can be quite painful. This is where you will need to practice the second technique.
The Frenzel technique is what free divers use at deeper levels, and it is effective for as far as you can go underwater.
The idea here is to close off your vocal fold and use the back of your tongue to push air into your nostrils and middle ear region.
There are three ways that this can be done. The process remains the same; the only difference is where your tongue interacts with your soft palate.
First, you need to hold a little air in your mouth as you usually do (simply closing your mouth will give you enough air to work with, and you don't need to puff up your cheeks to hold extra air).
Next, pinch your nose and touch the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth just behind your front teeth.
Now you have sealed off any air from your mouth and nose. At this point, you also want to close off your vocal fold.
To practice sealing off the vocal fold, hold your mouth open and push air out by squeezing your belly. As you push the air out, keep your mouth open, but block the vocal fold so that even though your mouth is open, no air is coming out.
With your vocal fold closed, close your mouth, and pinch your nose.
Next, place your tongue behind your upper front teeth and use the rear of your tongue to push air into your nose.
You can imagine that you have bubblegum on your tongue behind the area touching the roof of your mouth, and you are trying to flatten the bubblegum using the back of your tongue and the remaining roof of your mouth.
When you do this, you should see your nostrils flare up a little.
You use the back of your tongue as a piston to push air into your nose and the middle ear region.
This technique takes some practice to develop a good mind-to-body connection, so practice in front of a mirror as much as possible before taking the underwater technique.
The three variations of the Frenzel technique are the T-lock, K-lock, and H-lock.
If you position your tongue against the roof of your mouth to make the sound of the letter T, K, or H, without actually making the sound, you will notice that the tongue touches the roof of the mouth at three different points.
The easiest is the T-lock, and nearly everyone who tries can make this sound. Many people can also manage the K-lock because they are familiar with using their tongue in this way.
The H-lock is the most challenging because, in certain languages, such as English, the H sound is not so pronounced as to create a proper seal against the roof of the mouth.
In other languages, especially guttural languages, the H sound is very pronounced and requires a tight seal between the tongue and the soft palate. These sounds typically sound more like a ‘kha’ than the soft ‘ha’ sound we use in English.
The purpose of these variations is to drive air pressure into the nose using very little air.
When diving to deep depths, it becomes harder to hold air in your mouth as the vocal fold is nearly always closed—plus, you are upside down, so the air naturally wants to go the other way into your lungs where the pressure is lower.
When you have a small amount of air in your mouth, it helps to know the more advanced variations of the Frenzel, so you can still drive pressure into your middle ear region and nose.
Mask Equalization when freediving
A pressurized mask increases the pressure on the capillaries in your eyes and can cause them to burst. To equalize the mask, you simply breathe some air through your nose and into the mask.
The problem is that divers often breathe too much air into the mask, which gets wasted in the form of bubbles escaping from the mask. Every little bit of air is important when diving deep in the ocean, so learning to release just enough air is a skill that should be practiced.
On your way back up, the oxygen in the mask will expand, and you can breathe some of that air back in through your nose, giving you the much-needed oxygen that your body is starving for.
Remember that a low volume freediving mask helps you dive deeper by requiring less of your precious air to relieve the pressure. Checkout our articles on the best Freediving and best Spearfishing masks.
Final Thoughts on Equalization while Freediving
No matter how good a swimmer you are or how long you can hold your breath, if you can't equalize properly, you can’t dive to greater depths.
You can first start practicing your equalization techniques in front of a mirror. From there, you can start practicing in shallow water. Then you can graduate to practicing in deep water, around 10-15 meters deep.
You should always practice first in a safe environment, like a pool. Then, you can start diving in open waters and practicing on real dives.
And most importantly always dive with a competent dive buddy.
The most important thing with equalization is that you do your equalization routine every few seconds as you dive.
The idea is to equalize before the pressure builds up, so you don’t experience discomfort. If you practice thoroughly before diving deep, you will never have to suffer from the pain that comes with no equalization.