Surfer’s Ear: Prevention and Treatment

What is Surfer’s Ear?

Regularly surfing in cold water, it was probably just a matter of time before I developed external auditory exostosis (EAE) or ”surfer’s ear,” a medical condition resulting from cold water and wind regularly contacting the ear canal. Frequent cold water and air in your ear canal stimulates bone growth that over time narrows the ear canal. With the narrowed ear canal, water and ear wax can plug up your ears resulting in general discomfort, possible hearing loss, and greater chances of ear infections. The good news is that you can greatly reduce your chance of getting “surfer’s ear” by following common sense preventative measures. And if you do get “surfer’s ear” recent medical advancements have made the surgical procedure less invasive. I’ll share with you my experience with the surgical procedure.

Prevention

Like most physical ailments or diseases, prevention is often the best cure.  If you are new to surfing and water sports in cold water (or even if you’ve been at it awhile), there are steps you can take to prevent, or greatly slow the issue:

  1. Wear ear plugs. Ear plugs can range from low cost products like Mack’s Ear Plugs, to higher end, custom-fitting ear plugs. The important thing is to block cold water and wind from getting into your ear canal.
  2. Wear a hood. Hoods serve the dual purpose of covering your ears and helping to keep cold water and wind out of your ears, but also to help prevent direct sun on your head which can cause skin damage.
  3. Keep ears warm out of water. When out of the water avoid cold wind hitting your ears by using your hoodie, or a hat.
  4. Use ear drops. Ear specialists recommend using ear drops after surfing / swimming to help prevent infection. Drops can be store bought or one can create a home mix of vinegar and alcohol.

Diagnosing

Unfortunately I rarely used ear plugs, or a hood in my 20 plus years of surfing.  I began to notice water was harder and harder to get out of my ears, and I would on occasion get earaches.  I knew it was time to see a specialist. Surfer’s ear is a real concern and if you think you might be a candidate, I would recommend getting your ears looked at by a qualified physician.

Surfer's Ear

(Image courtesy of PAMF.org)

The Procedure

I just completed the surgery and I am glad I did it. A significant amount of bone was removed and other than some nausea from the anesthesia, recovery is relatively painless. I am fortunate to live and surf in the Santa Cruz area, one of the most consistent but coldest wave zones in California. And since many others surf and do water sports here, it isn’t surprising that Dr. Douglas Hetzler, one of the best surfer’s ear surgeons, practices here. Dr Hetzler uses tiny chisels to chip away unwanted bone growth, a procedure he helped pioneer. It appears that the chip and chisel method has a quicker recovery, is less painful, and has less risks than other methods.

For more details about surfer’s ear and Dr. Hetzler’s methods, go here.

To your health,

Scott Adams, CSCS

Coach Scott winter surf session in California, pre Surfer's Ear surgery (and sans hood).

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