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Everything You Need to Know About Surfer's Ear (Exostosis)

What was that again? If you constantly find yourself asking this question or having problems hearing, then there’s a good chance you might be suffering from surfer’s ear or exostosis. Although hearing problems can be associated with other medical conditions, regular surfers should seriously consider that this might be caused by surfer’s ear.

What is Surfer's ear

Surfer’s ear is a condition characterized by an abnormal growth of bone on top of an existing bone in the ear canal leading to the eardrum. Medically referred to as exostosis, these extra growths can occur on any bone but are more commonly found in the ear canal, hip region, and feet. As the exostosis progresses, it gradually obstructs the ear canal interfering with sound reception.

What Causes Surfer’s Ear?

Since anybody can suffer from exostosis, why give it a specific name. To get a better understanding of why this is called surfer’s ear let us take a look why surfers are more likely to suffer from this condition.

Surfer’s Ear refers to surfers who suffer from exostosis in their ears. These unusual bone growths can occur in one or both ears. The bone growths can be caused by constant exposure to the wind and water. Frequent exposure especially to cold water conditions can increase your risk for bone growth. According to an article by UCI Health, ‘cold water surfers are six times more likely to get surfer’s ear than warm water surfers.’

Pressure caused by strong winds on your ears can also be a major cause for exostosis. Some say that bone growth is the body’s natural way of protecting the ear drums against the elements.

Do I Have Surfer’s Ear – Symptoms

It usually takes years for surfer’s ears to develop. And most people do not experience any symptoms since the condition does not progress to a level that it can affect the normal operation of the ears until it becomes severe.

The bone growths are not visible and could only be identified with an ear exam. A doctor uses an otoscope to look into the ear canal and check for unusual growth. But prior to a checkup, a person suffering from surfer’s ear can display any or all of these symptoms:

a. Water gets trapped in your ear – the extra bone growths can interfere with how water is drained from your ears.

b. Recurrent ear infections – water trapped in your ears is a perfect recipe for an ear infection. The warm and wet environment is an ideal breeding ground for bacteria.

c. Hearing loss – gradual closure of the ear canal because of the extra bone growth and inflammation caused by an ear infection can ultimately lead to partial or total hearing loss.

How to Treat Surfer’s Ear

The bad news is that surfer’s ear does not go away even after prolonged absence in the water. Bones don’t shrink back to their normal size but avoiding risk factors such as surfing in cold water or wearing earplugs can prevent it from growing any further. Mild cases of surfer’s ears do not require medical attention but for advanced cases, surgical intervention is the only treatment available.

There are two surgical procedures that can be used to treat surfer’s ears. The first is by making an incision behind the person’s ear and using a drill to remove the bone growth. The second method is to use a micro chisel to chip away the extra bone growth. The instrument is inserted into the ear canal after which a layer of silicone is placed over the treated area to protect it.

Post-surgery instructions include the use of ear drops or oral pain relievers for pain associated with surgery. Patients are also instructed to avoid exposing the ear area to water for up to six weeks after surgery.

How to Prevent Surfer's Ear

The best way to prevent surfer’s ears is to understand their causes. Exposure to cold water is the leading cause of surfer’s ear and this should be on top of your priorities. If surfing in cold water conditions is something that cannot be avoided then the next best thing is to protect your ears. This can be done by wearing earplugs. It acts like a barrier preventing water from coming in but can also reduce hearing. There are two ways to plug those holes. Ear plugs and putty which acts like clay that you could mold to form a watertight seal.

Difference Between Surfer’s Ear and Swimmer’s Ear

Surfer’s ear and swimmer’s ear are two different medical conditions and not named because of the type of person who gets it. Surfer’s ear is a type of exostosis (bony growths in the ear canal), while swimmer’s ear is medically referred to otitis externa (bacterial infection caused by water trapped in the outer ear canal). An ear infection is also one of the symptoms of surfer’s ear. When ear infection becomes chronic, then this can be caused by an underlying medical condition such as surfer’s ear.