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A mask squeeze from freediving is not generally a long-term health risk, but it can cause short-term pain and noticeable physical trauma to the eyes and face. The signs and symptoms tend to clear up fast, but can ruin a few days of your vacation. To understand what exactly a mask squeeze is, here I explain why it can happen and what you can do to prevent it.
What is facial barotrauma?
Mask squeeze is also known as facial barotrauma, mask/eye barotrauma, or face squeeze. When you wear a mask to freedive, there is an airspace between the mask and your face.
As you descend underwater, that airspace gets compressed and creates a negative pressure in the mask. The negative pressure essentially causes a suction-like effect on your face inside the mask resulting in discomfort, pain, and even physical damage.
To relieve a facial barotrauma, you simply have to breathe out of your nose gently to add a little air into the air space in the mask. This equalizes the pressure, and you can continue to descend.
You must do this a few times on your descent before you start to feel any pain or intense discomfort. It can be tricky to get into the habit of equalizing your mask, but once you have done it a few times you will start to do it without thinking.
When does mask squeeze occur?
A mask squeeze can occur when you wear a mask to freedive to depth. Scuba divers might also experience it but as they tend to descend slower than freedivers do and have access to more air as and when they need it, so for them it’s less of a risk.
There are some factors that make a mask squeeze more likely or more apparent. For example, if you use a mask that doesn’t fit your face well you won’t be able to equalize the airspace successfully and you will waste valuable air trying to.
To sum up, a mask squeeze is most likely to occur because the diver has not equalized the pressure frequently or efficiently enough. In most cases, it will cause discomfort and will likely force you to end your dive session, so it is important to remember to equalize your mask to avoid injury!
What depth does mask squeeze happen?
When you freedive to depth with a mask, the airspace in the mask starts to compress straight away, and you are likely to start feeling the effects of a face squeeze as shallow as 33ft/10m. If you fail to equalize your mask, you will experience a mild squeezing or sucking sensation that gradually becomes more and more uncomfortable or painful as you descend.
It is important to equalize the pressure difference in the mask as needed (before you experience pain) to avoid severe effects. Mask squeeze will only happen on the descent of a dive, and not on the ascent. This is because the air in the mask will expand on the ascend instead of compressing, so you do not need to equalize your mask on your way up.
What does mask squeeze feel and look like – Symptoms and signs
A mask squeeze will start off as a mild discomfort which feels like a squeezing or sucking sensation on the face under the mask. If the airspace is not equalized, the squeeze will worsen and you will start to feel intense pain in the face and eyes, and you might experience a headache, or even a nosebleed during or after the dive session.
After the dive, the headache and eye pain might linger for a few hours, and you are likely to show signs of bruising on the face, as well as bloodshot eyes. Bloodshot eyes are due to blood vessels bursting from the pressure of the compressed air in the mask. A severe mask squeeze, however, can sometimes cause vertigo, dizziness, or visual distortions.
Is mask squeeze injury dangerous?
Although this freediving injury can look quite dramatic, generally it is dangerous or long-lasting. The most likely repercussions of a mask squeeze are bloodshot eyes that last just a week or so.
However, in some cases it can cause pain and although unlikely, might bring on visual disturbances or dizziness, if you experience these symptoms it is important to seek medical attention.
Preventing a mask squeeze by equalizing regularly is the best way to avoid the chance of severe signs and symptoms.
Treatment and recovery
Treatment and medical assistance is not required for most mask squeeze injuries, you simply have to wait for the signs and symptoms to relieve themselves. Bloodshot eyes and facial bruising should clear completely after around two weeks.
If you experience mild pain in the eyes or a headache you can take painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. If you do experience visual disturbances or eye pain that lasts longer than a few hours, seek medical advice.
Can I dive after a mask squeeze?
After a mask squeeze injury, it is wise to wait until all signs and symptoms have cleared up before returning to the water for a dive session. Risking another mask squeeze could add to the injuries that you already have.
If you are keen to freedive before your signs and symptoms have disappeared, discuss with your doctor whether it is a good idea for you.
Tips to prevent a mask squeeze
There are many ways to avoid and prevent a mask squeeze so that your dive trip doesn’t get put on hold (and you don’t have bloodshot eyes in all your vacation selfies!).
The most important is to equalize your mask; you should exhale gently through your nose as you start to feel a mild squeezing sensation. Doing this regularly is the best way to reduce the likelihood of such an injury.
There are also a few other precautions you can take to prevent a mask squeeze when freediving:
Choose a properly fitted mask
A mask that fits properly is essential for freediving as it is more comfortable, will prevent leaks, and be easier to equalize as it fits on your face nicely.
To test if a mask is suited to your face, hold the mask against your face without using the strap, inhale through the nose and see if the mask holds firmly to your face without you having to hold it with your hands. It should stay stuck to your face firmly to be suitable for freediving.
Everyone has a different face shape so one mask that might be perfect for your friend, might not work at all for you. Try a few options on dry land before wearing one underwater.
Minimize facial hair
Facial hair will create a gap between the face and the mask, which could allow water to leak in, and could allow air to escape when you equalize the mask. This will waste air and prevent the mask from being equalized properly.
Equalize the mask well before feeling pain
Now you know how to equalize the mask, it is important you do so regularly. If you already feel pain or intense discomfort, you have waited too long.
Try to get into the habit of equalizing properly by whaling through the nose frequently on the descent.
Don’t make your mask strap too tight
A tight strap will make it harder to equalize the airspace in the mask and will not be comfortable during your dive session. If you usually get hard mask lines after your dives, then probably your mask is too tight; loosen the strap so the mask gently suctions to your face but you don’t get water leaking in.
Don’t descend too fast
Make sure you are giving yourself enough time to equalize your mask properly on your descent. Descending too fast will give you less control and a less efficient equalization.
Remind yourself before the dive to think about your equalization. With so much to remember during a dive, you might forget to prioritize your mask equalization, but it is an important factor to remember.
Also, avoid being hungover or too tired as this could impair your ability to remember or equalize properly.
Switch to a nose clip
Many freedivers switch from diving with a mask to diving with a nose clip. This removes the airspace and therefore the need to equalize that airspace.
Ditching the mask might feel strange at first but many freedivers say that it allows them to focus more on their dive, feel at one with the water, and equalize their ears much easier without the need of their hand.
Do not try to dive using swimming goggles
Swimming goggles cover your eyes and do not involve the nose. This makes it impossible for you to equalize the air space between your eyes and the goggles.
Diving underwater using swimming goggles is dangerous and a sure way to experience severe eye barotrauma.
Now you know what a mask squeeze is and how to prevent it you can dive with confidence and avoid discomfort, pain, and bloodshot eyes on your next freediving trip.
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