You are ascending to the surface of the sea after a long day of scuba diving but suddenly the world tilts sideways! You feel like you are spinning in a really fast roller coaster. Your ears are ringing and you feel extremely nauseated.
Something tells you to stop the ascent and go back down but still the world doesn’t stop spinning. Everything seems to move fast, you can’t even tell which way is up and which one is down. This dizzy spell is called vertigo. Even though the sensation only lasts a few seconds, it can be quite frightening especially if this is your first time going underwater.
But why does it happen? How can you prevent vertigo while scuba diving? We will find that out in a little bit, but first…
What Exactly Is Vertigo?
Vertigo is a sensation of whirling, tilting, spinning, or swaying when the surrounding environment is in the actual sense not moving. It is experienced when the air pressure in your ears is not equalized at the same rate, meaning, one of your middle ears gets more pressure than the other. As a result, your brain goes out of control and starts sending you confusing signals.
When Does It Happen?
Vertigo commonly occurs on ascent but sometimes can be felt on descent too. Physics tells us that pressure changes with depth. If you were swimming at 40 feet and suddenly start moving up, you are more likely to feel the symptoms as your ears try to equalize the pressure exerted at each depth.
If one ear equalizes normally and the other one doesn’t, you will experience dizziness, nausea, spinning, or any other symptoms associated with Vertigo. You can also feel the symptoms if your hood seals over one ear more, or rather, tighter than the other.
The symptoms of vertigo are very uncomfortable and can send a diver into a state of shock or anxiety. The very first time you experience the sensation could really get you nervous, as you might not know what is actually going on. That’s why it is important to always have a buddy so that both of you can keep an eye on each other.
In most cases, vertigo will be accompanied by the following symptoms:
- Loss of balance
- Ear pain
- Whistling sounds, hissing, buzzing, or ringing in one ear
- Visual distortion – you see as if the world is tilting
- Physical sensation of whirling or spinning
- Muted hearing in one or both ears
In normal circumstances, the symptoms go away within a few seconds or minutes. A vertigo sensation that lasts for hours could be dangerous and should be checked by a doctor.
How To Prevent Vertigo
Prevention is way better and even cheaper than cure. Unfortunately, there are no drugs or vaccines that can be taken to prevent vertigo while scuba diving. The only proven way to do it is to continuously, gradually, and carefully equalizing the pressures of both ears throughout the dive.
Pay attention to your ears as you dive and you will feel when pressure starts to change in your middle ears. Be sure to halt in order to equalize the pressure in both ears properly before proceeding. Sometimes, something this simple could be all you need.
Here are additional ways through which you can prevent vertigo while scuba diving:
1. Ensure You Are In Good Health
Don’t go diving when you are stressed, unwell, or have any condition that can interfere with proper equalization of air pressure while ascending or descending through the water. If you have a cold or chest congestion, let it heal first before heading to the waters.
2. Obtain Your Doctor’s Clearance
If you have a condition that requires you to constantly take medications, make sure to clear with your doctor before hitting the ocean. Some drugs can have side effects similar to vertigo symptoms when you are under pressure.
3. Keep Your Buddy Close
Don’t let go of your buddy while underwater. In case things go wrong, you can help each other regain control. Also, let them know of any medical condition you may have so that they can keep an eye on you. You are in a foreign world and those fish and plants down there don’t give a damn about what is happening to you, so stick with each other.
4. Make Good Use Of Descent/Ascent Lines
Descent/ascent lines play a major role in preventing the symptoms of vertigo. They allow you to move slowly through the water, which gives your ears enough time to equalize air pressure as you descend or ascend. A descent/ascent line also acts as a good visual reference in areas where disorientation is an issue.
How To Deal With Vertigo When It Occurs
So you have taken all the necessary precautions to prevent vertigo while scuba diving but you are still experiencing its symptoms while taking your underwater adventure? Here is how you can deal with the situation:
- Stop and take a slow, deep breath to supply your brain with enough oxygen. Actually, this may be all you need to calm the situation. Remember the spinning world is all in your head, and is just a picture drawn by your brain. Supplying it with enough oxygen will refresh it up and may subside the symptoms of vertigo.
- Check your depth gauge or dive computer to know how deep you are. If you can’t read the figures, look where the bubbles are headed and you will know where the surface is, just in case…
- Call for help. Signal your buddy to let them know something is wrong. Do not be tempted to swim toward them because you might change your depth and make the situation worse. Stay put until they get to where you are.
- If the symptoms don’t go away even after your buddy has tried to get you back to your feet, abort the dive and let them help you to the surface. If the spinning sensation continues even when on land, call your doctor immediately. You might have an underlying health condition with vertigo-like symptoms.
Is Vertigo Dangerous?
Vertigo should not be a cause for alarm, as pressure on both ears will eventually balance on its own. The symptoms will also subside within a short period without requiring further medical attention. However, to some extent, we can still argue that vertigo is dangerous for scuba divers due to the following reasons:
1. Causes panic
The last thing you need while scuba diving is to get nervous as this will directly affect your breathing, and in return, deplete your scuba tank. When you panic, your breathing rate increases, which means you consume more oxygen from your cylinder than necessary. You may end up running out of air or even worse, falling unconscious.
2. Can Make You Drown
Well, not directly but we already stated earlier that vertigo causes nausea which sometimes leads to vomiting. Alright? Now, you don’t want to throw up on your regulator so the only option you got is to take it off, which puts you at risk of drowning.
3. Can Be Disastrous
Can you imagine trying to get a frenzy of sharks on film and all of a sudden everything around you starts to spin – including the sharks? You not only get frightened by the thought that you are surrounded by sharks but also lose control, which could lead to serious catastrophic consequences.
4. Gets you distracted
The moment the world starts whirling, your mind gets diverted from the task you are handling. You start worrying about what is happening to you and by the time you get back to your senses, a lot of things might have gone wrong.
5. Puts you at risk of ear barotrauma
If you experience the symptoms of vertigo but continue to ascend or descend, the Eustachian tube of the over pressurized ear may get blocked, resulting to ear barotrauma.
How To Treat Vertigo
Normally, vertigo goes away on its own. Your brain is able to adapt to changes in the middle ear quickly, and therefore stops sending the confusing signals as soon as pressure is equalized in both ears. However, in severe cases of vertigo, treatment is required. It may include:
1. Vestibular Rehabilitation
Vestibular system is responsible for sending signals to the brain. It tells your brain how your body and head moves in relation to gravity. Vestibular rehabilitation, therefore, is some sort of therapy recommended for those scuba divers who have recurrent episodes of vertigo. Its aim is to make the vestibular system much stronger and train other senses to reduce or deal with vertigo.
In some cases, your doctor may prescribe certain medications to relieve certain vertigo-related symptoms like motion sickness, nausea, and vomiting. This is especially when the condition is caused by an inflammation or infection of the middle ear.
Even though pressure imbalance is usually the main cause of vertigo in scuba diving, sometimes it could just be caused by a dirty earplugs for your ears that you probably forgot to clean before fixing into your ears during your last surf. In such an instance, your doctor may administer steroids or antibiotics to reduce any swelling on your Eustachian tube and heal the infection.
In very rare cases will surgery be needed to treat vertigo. But if your symptoms are as a result of a serious underlying health problem, such as an injury on the neck or brain or a tumor, you are going to need surgery to alleviate vertigo.
4. Lifestyle changes
There are a few things you can do on your own to reduce the symptoms of vertigo while scuba diving. Here are the main three:
- Stop whenever you start experiencing the symptoms in order to have a good control of your breathing and allow your brain to calm down.
- Find out the move that makes the symptoms severe (whether it’s ascending or descending) and do it slowly.
- If vertigo affects your ability to see or control your buoyancy, use ascent/descent lines to prevent falling at the bottom of the ocean or being over-buoyant and float on the surface.
Globo Surf Overview
Vertigo is one of the most infrequently discussed experiences of scuba diving. Even though it is scary enough, it is not a serious condition as in most cases the symptoms disappear after a short period. A single instance of vertigo therefore should not be an excuse for not joining your friends for the next scuba trip but if the symptoms are frequent and usually take longer than they should, make a point of seeing your doctor.
Vertigo symptoms however can cause panic and prevent you from making a safe ascent or descent. Learning how to prevent vertigo while scuba diving and what to do when experiencing its symptoms will give you a risk-free and enjoyable swim underwater.
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