I consider myself a conservative freediver. I progress slowly and when I can’t equalize, I turn back. A middle ear barotrauma is the last kind of injury I would have imagine happening to myself.
The middle ear cavity is an isolated space that is at one end connected to the nasal cavity though the Eustachian tube and at the other end, separated from the outer ear by a membrane known as the ear drum.
When we dive, pressure from the water, presses onto the ear drum, compressing the middle ear cavity and we need to compensate this by transferring air from the lungs into the nasal cavity, through the Eustachian tubes, and into this space.
When we do not do so and continue descending, the ear drum and soft tissues in the middle ear can only take so much pressure, before something gives way, and often it is the thin blood vessels of the tissues in this area that do.
In the worst-case scenario, the ear drum, unable to take the pressure, ruptures and the middle ear becomes exposed to the outer world. This makes the ear susceptible to infection.
What happened to me was that I was descending so quickly, so determined to reach my target that I had somehow forgotten to equalize. At 23m, I heard a pop sound in my left ear. I panicked, and returned rapidly to the surface, aided by my instructor and course mates.
Even though there was no pain, I could feel that my left ear drum was more sensitive than usual and there were crackling sounds whenever I equalized. Eric Fattah believes that this crackling sound is an indication of fluid in the middle ear that accumulates whenever we force equalization.
A nurse used an otoscope to look at my eardrums comparing the good one with the bad one and found the bad one swollen and full.
Here are some of the lessons I have learned from this episode:
Never think that it can never happen to you.
When in doubt, going slow is better than speeding up.
Pineapples and turmeric help reduce inflammation. The effect of pineapple juice reducing the swelling of my swollen lymph node was almost immediate.
A doctor may diagnose this condition as Eustachian tube dysfunction. I was given an anti-inflammatory nasal spray and anti-allergy syrup.
Do not fret and give it time to heal. The body has an amazing ability to heal itself.
If ever, you are in a situation where you meet with equalization troubles and are able to decide whether to continue descending or to return to the surface, choose to turn back. An injury is never worth it. It is a form of self-abuse.
I was lucky that the ‘pop’ sound I heard was not the rupturing of the ear drum, but probably some other blood vessels. And my injury healed in about two to three weeks. However, this injury did halt my freediving progress and plans.
The most important lesson I learned from all of this was not to be too hard on myself. From sharing my experience with others, I found that this experience was more common than I had thought, and I received compassion, advice, and support.
I have since returned to the depths, now, a wiser freediver.