What is Surfer's Ear - The Ultimate Guide
It’s more widespread than it’s commonly believed but most surfers don’t tend to be aware of it until they experience a persistent clog in their ears.
I should know. I suffered from this condition for a while.
Like most afflicted surfers, I only realized that there was something wrong when it wasn’t as easy to drain the sea water out of my ear. That’s the thing with surfer’s ear; you can have it growing in your ear canal and you’ll never know.
That’s because most people who have it are symptom-free.
Surfer’s ear syndrome is prevalent in about 38% of the general population. Among surfers, however, the prevalence is much higher: at around 26-73% in studies. Professional surfers have it worse; in a study among a group of professional Australian surfers, researchers found out that the condition affects 87 percent of male surfers and 69 percent of female surfers.
And yet despite its being widespread, it’s a medical condition that’s poorly understood not only by the surfers but also by the medical community. Unless your doctor is familiar with surfing, most GPs would tend to think of it as a rare condition that generally has no long term debilitating impact.
That’s why there’s also a lot of myths and misconceptions regarding the treatment of this medical problem. Having had it, I’m going to share with you some real facts that I learned while being treated for this condition.
Here’s your ultimate guide to what a surfer’s ear is:
What is Surfer’s Ear?
Among doctors, surfer’s ear is known by its medical term of “external auditory exostoses” (EAE) or just exostoses. The word comes from the Greek words ex ‘out’ and osteon ‘bone’.
It’s a progressive but benign growth of bone protruding from the outer ear canal caused by chronic exposure to cold water and winds. Surfers, because of the nature of our sport, tend to get this more than anyone else (which is why it’s named after us) but according to Matt Arney over at Simply Surf, anyone repeatedly exposed to cold, wet and windy conditions over a long period of time will be at high risk for this condition. That means sailors, divers and kayakers can also be afflicted with this condition.
Surfers in cold zones are likely to get this more than those surfing in warmer waters. Which isn’t to say our bros in the tropics are better off. If they’re avoiding the sun by surfing during dawn, the early tropical morning chill is enough to cause surfer’s ear.
It takes at least five years’ of regular surfing to produce bone growth that will cause noticeable symptoms. That’s because bone grows slow. It’s also the reason why those who suffer with surfer’s ear tend to be asymptomatic.
When symptoms appear, it can be varied. According to surfer-physician Dr. David Baglow at the Magic Seaweed, some patients can suffer pain, ear infections and a constant ringing in their ears. Some will have a significant decline in hearing. Some will even require surgery in order to become functional again.
Some Fun Facts on Surfer’s Ear
While googling about my condition online, I stumbled on some interesting facts about this condition.
Surfer’s ear has been around way long before the advent of modern surfing industry. In fact, paleontologists are pointing at the fossil evidence of exostoses to hypothesize that prehistoric man may have had an aquatic phase.
Similarly, anthropologists are also using this condition to identify links among prehistoric communities to their affinity for living near the sea.
Not only is this condition prevalent among early humans, but it also affects our sea bros. It’s a mammal thing, apparently. Seals develop exostoses not as a response to extreme cold but as a physiological adaptation. Their exostoses function in a protective manner; it protects their sensitive hearing organ when they dive for food. Cool, right?
Surfer’s Ear Myths
I’ve also learned that because there’s not much attention given to this condition, a lot of misconceptions have come up over the years.
For one thing, surfer’s ear is often confused with swimmer’s ear. It isn’t. Surfer’s ear is bone growth that you get from constant exposure to cold and wet conditions. Swimmer’s ear, meanwhile, is an infection that you get from any moist environment, your shower included.
And because surfer’s ear is bone growth, it won’t shrink on its own or by medication. If it’s troublesome enough, you’ll eventually need surgery to get it out. That being said, having them removed won’t make them grow back faster. As long as you’re using ear plugs to protect your ear, it won’t come back.
Btw, wearing ear plugs won’t affect your balance. You’ll be able to enjoy surfing more now that you have plugs to protect your ears from the cold and often, dirty sea water.
How Does One Diagnose Surfer’s Ear?
Get to a doctor. Only he can diagnose it properly. The most common symptom that indicates the ear canal is narrowing due to bone growth, is when it takes a longer time for the water-clogged ears to clear after a surf.
Dr. Baglow said that a surfer’s ear may feel quite full for a while after a surf. If it gets infected, it will even be painful. The pain, which is often accompanied by a decrease in hearing in the affected ear, will certainly not be a pleasant experience.
What are the Treatment Options?
If you don’t mind the occasional ear infection, you can manage the condition by using surfactant ear drops and undergoing a ear micro-suction procedure.
Surfactant ear drops function by reducing the surface tension of the water trapped in your ear. This helps it drain easily out of your ear.
A micro-suction procedure, meanwhile, is performed by ENT surgeons. This is usually done when you already have an ear infection and you have to get the pus out in order for the infection to subside.
When growths are big, however, it may necessitate surgery in order to remove the growth. In my case, I had to undergo one in order to remove the growth in one ear.
If you have some apprehensions with undergoing surgery, Dr. Baglow’s blog is very helpful in helping you understand and walking you through the procedure to clear up any concerns.
Can One Prevent Surfer’s Ear?
Yes, by wearing ear plugs. Surfer’s ear is a preventable medical condition. And other than quitting surfing all together ( which I’m sure you’d rather not do), it’s the only way you can protect your ears from excessive exposure to cold salt water.
Ear plugs work by plugging out the sea water. The best ones on the market today prevent the water coming into the ear canal while letting sound waves in too. So you don’t have to be deaf while surfing. Some plugs even require negative moulds of your ear to ensure that your ear plug is snug and an easy fit in your ear.
Ever since having this condition, I’ve taken to wearing earplugs by Macks. Not only is it non-toxic, but its unique flex design makes for a more comfortable and snug fit. It’s made of silicone, not plastic, so there’s no need to worry about getting it into the food chain.
Ultimately, a surfer’s ear shouldn’t be an obstacle to your enjoyment of surfing. If managed well and when used with the proper protective gear, having pearl-like growths in your ear canal should be the least of your worries. Especially if you’re looking at waves like those in Oaxaca.
In fact, you’ll have more room for being stoked for surfing, bro!
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