How my diving instructor cured my sinusitis

Your body is like the world, a place of many mysteries.

April 13, 2016, India

As a kid, I was always sneezing every morning. This would clear up in a while. Occasionally, it would turn into a cold with a running nose and maybe a sore throat. After a few days of misery, that too would pass. Still, my mother who is a born worrier, would take me to see the doctor just to be safe. Most of those old time practitioners would tell her not to worry, and advise rest, hot liquids, and sometimes a steam inhalation. I even recall some vile tasting black stuff that our old family doctor used to rub onto my tonsils.

Synonyms for I-don’t-know

By the time I reached my teens, the doctors had become specialists, and had grown wiser. They began labelling my condition. One called it eosinophilia. Another called it allergic rhinitis. If ever a doctor uses such words, take my word that he’s talking through his hat, and I learned it the hard way.

It would have been fine if the specialists had stuck to labelling. But they began giving ominous hints to my mother on what would happen if I didn’t get my condition treated. So my alarmed mom who blindly trusts doctors, would instantly get the medicine and have me take it.

When doctors create an illness

As time went on, the doctors began prescribing anti-histamines to stop the allergic sneezing. These drugs work by stopping nature’s simple way of cleansing via a runny nose. After several courses of anti-histamines, my nasal passages became blocked and infected. The doctors had successfully manufactured a real illness. I now had sinusitis, an infection of the sinus cavities.

The drug merry-go-round

After this, I was prescribed a course of antibiotics. The sinus infection was cured but only temporarily. A few weeks later, it returned. Soon I was hopping off and on the drug merry go round, with the doctors and drug companies merrily raking in the money. After a while, I started getting allergic to the antibiotics, and would get blisters and sores. In between, they advised decongestant sprays which soon began to have a counter effect of causing the congestion to increase.

Next came the steroid sprays. A few cans later, I had nosebleeds for the first time in my life. My immune system also began getting weaker, and I would easily catch any bug that was passing around. Somewhere along the way, I realised I was nothing but a guinea pig for the medical industry to test drugs. What I would give to not have a single drug for the rest of my days.

Upgrade to a roller coaster

Seeing that I was getting nowhere, the doctors now decided to take it to a whole new level. They solemnly pronounced that they had finally discovered the root cause of my illness. It was a deviated septum. This being medical jargon for the bridge of my nose blocking my air passage. They convinced my parents to get it operated on. But the sinusitis still continued.

Paying to be a guinea pig

Next the doctors tried draining the sinus by sticking in big needles and flushing them out with salt water. All they succeeded in doing was having the sinus infection spread from the sinus cavities on my cheeks to those on my forehead. This last could not be accessed by their needles so they backed off.

A couple of doctors later, we met an ENT specialist who showed us an x-ray of what he called polyps growing in my sinus cavities. He said getting rid of the polyps would solve my problem. I duly signed up for a second sinus operation. Only to find I had been taken for a ride again. The sinusitis remained. All that we got rid of was some more of our money.

Experimenting on myself

By now, I was old enough to make my own decisions, and I said enough is enough, and refused to have anything to do with the ENT doctors. Over the next few years, I tried alternative medical cures. Homeopathy, Ayurveda (an ancient Indian herb based system), acupuncture, yoga… Nothing worked.

The medicine with no side effects

After that, I gave up and stuck to Panadol (paracetamol tablets), a cold medicine that had ads running on Indian TV claiming it had no side effects. I would take a tablet or two every week when the sinusitis got bad, and it would kill the pain of the headaches, and let me get on with life. Luckily for me, a doctor friend warned me that the drug would destroy my kidneys if taken for long. I had already noticed that my body was retaining water when I took some of the drugs. No side effects, indeed!

As an aside, a few weeks ago, the Indian government banned several drug combinations as they ‘involve risk to humans’ and safer alternatives are available. The affected drug companies including global giants like Pfizer, Abbott, Macleods Pharma and Glenmark Pharmaceuticals have appealed to the courts and received interim injunctions against the ban.

It’s heartless monsters like these that make me hope that the Law of Karma exists. Do bad and it will come back to you, and vice versa. Or if you prefer plain English, ‘The crap always comes around.’

Nature knows best

My sinus headaches are now under control. Bit difficult to explain what I did, but I’ll try my best.

Somewhere in between all those antibiotics and operations, I figured out two things. Firstly, my childhood runny nose was nature’s way of clearing out my sinuses. So I needed make sure my nasal airways always stayed open.

Diving Instructors know second best

The second bit of enlightenment happened when I joined up for a PADI divers license. The instructor, a Russian lady who shared a birthday with Michael Jackson, asked me to sign a form. The small print at the bottom advised swimmers who suffered from sinusitis to avoid diving.

Of course, I had to switch to idiot mode, ignore the sinusitis caution, and sign on with a flourish. I did casually ask my instructor about the sinusitis rule. She just as casually replied that one of her students had hidden the condition, painfully torn his eardrum, and never returned. The lady sure had a sense of drama. Definitely a link with MJ.

Anyway, I swallowed, crossed my fingers, dived, and was lucky to do it on a day when my sinuses were relatively well-behaved. The shipwreck at the ocean floor was fabulous, the giant turtle floating silently by was eerie, and the 4-feet long shark was scary. But it was all ruined by my worrying about my eardrums bursting on my way down to the ocean floor, or while ascending. I got my PADI license but that was my last dive.

The good thing was all that stress helped clarify my thinking. Here’s what I understood with the extensive reading I did before my dive.

A balloon under water

Imagine a balloon filled with air held underwater. When you take it out of the water, the balloon will suddenly swell in size as water pressure is much higher than the air pressure.

The same thing happens inside my head when I ascend from a ocean floor after a dive. The air inside my head swells as the water pressure reduces while I ascend. Swallowing the air in my mouth with my nose pinched shut, usually helps equalise the pressure in the sinuses. But if the sinuses are blocked and the pressure can’t be equalised, we have a problem. The expanding air inside my sinus will cause headaches, dizziness, and eventually something may give way, which can be a eardrum which bursts.

Why babies cry on planes

Something similar but to a much lesser degree, happens inside our heads when a plane ascends and descends. In fact, I can literally feel the exact place where the air is getting blocked, and sometimes the pressure irritates my sinuses causes my nose to start running. Why does this happen?

There is less air at high altitudes. So the high pressure (relatively) inside the plane can cause dangerous stresses on the plane’s structure. To avoid this, airlines gradually lower air pressure inside the plane as it ascends to reduce the difference with the outside pressure, and vice versa when descending. But the air pressure inside your head cannot be controlled by the pilot.

The solution to this problem is quite simple. Hold your nose and swallow. Air goes out of your nasal passages and it equalises with the cabin air pressure, and the headache disappears in an instant. But babies can’t do this, which is why they start wailing when a plane takes off or lands.

Is sinusitis just an air block?

I realised that a sinusitis headache felt exactly like the airplane headache. So what if all that stuff the doctors were feeding me about deviated septums and polyps was just a load of rubbish. What if my sinus headache was simply being caused by a block in my airways. So if I could equalise the pressure in my head like I do in a plane, the headache would disappear.

Easier said then done. Years of infected sinuses, the drugs and operations had had a toll. But this is the age of the internet, and google, and search.

Look and ye shall find

So I searched, and searched, and one day I came across a random yoga site where the yoga instructor explained a way of clearing blocked airways. He himself had suffered from sinusitis, and claimed to have succeeded in opening up his clogged sinuses after six months of applying the simple techniques given below. I have lost the link to his site but I recall a clean page with no ads so the guy wasn’t out to make money.

Basically he says that you can open up air blocks in the sinuses by mastering the art of rocking the roof of your mouth with your tongue, while simultaneously applying pressure on the outside of the affected sinuses by using a massage motion with your fingers (a cold balm helps). As water multiplies pressure by the simple principle of hydraulic pressure, he also suggested filling the mouth with water and pushing it against the roof of the mouth to increase the rocking affect. He suggested doing this first thing in the morning, and repeating it several times a day if the headache persists.

Non-invasive and no side effects

What I loved about this was that it was a simple non-invasive treatment with no weird chemicals going into my body, and hence no bizarre side effects.

A work in progress

I have been practising his techniques for a few years now. I did have a bit of a headache this morning but it reduced when I did the yoga tricks. And now as I reach the end of this post, the headache is completely gone.

But here’s the big deal. It’s nearly three years since I have had any medicine of any kind to treat sinusitis. Nothing. Zilch. It’s hard to explain the immense relief of being free from the tyranny of having to have random drugs with arbitrary side effects.

I wish I had known this before I signed up as a guinea pig for the medical industry, and went through years of torture for no reason.

Still, better late than never. I don’t even want to imagine myself still popping those useless pills endlessly.

Pay it forward

I’m thankful to my diving instructor for putting me on the right path. This post is my way of passing on that unpremeditated good deed.

My experience helped me sort out not just my headaches, but it also helped me ensure my kid never goes through that whole trauma.

Hopefully, it helps others who work their way through this post.

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