The surf injury you rarely hear about: surfer’s ear

While every surfer has spun a tale or two about surf injuries — a board to the back of the head, a hand sliced on a fin, a dislocated joint after a particularly violent closeout — these injuries are actually rather rare.

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In fact, the Orthopedic Trauma Institute estimates that for every 1,000 days a person spends surfing, they will experience approximately three and a half ligament-, muscle- and joint-based injuries.

Surfer's Ear can lead to serious health issues and even hearing loss. Photo courtesy of BMcIvr/Flickr.
Surfer’s ear can lead to serious health issues and even hearing loss. Photo: Courtesy of BMcIvr/Flickr

However, there is a surf malady much more common, far less mentioned and potentially considerably more dangerous: exostosis (aka surfer’s ear). It’s a problem that affects close to one out of every three surfers and, if untreated, can cause pain and severe hearing loss.

The condition is caused by prolonged exposure to cold water and affects both young and old surfers. When the ear canal is irritated over a long period of time, it responds by growing bone, effectively narrowing the canal and causing hearing loss.

Eventually, this bone growth becomes so pronounced that it can lead to total hearing loss and can be treated only by cutting out or shaving down the bony growth, a process that requires a six- to eight-week recovery.

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“As we have developed very good wetsuits and surf year-round in colder and colder water, the irritation from the cold water is causing exostosis, or surfer’s ear,” says Dr. Ken Fujioka, a San Diego–based doctor and avid surfer who has undergone surfer’s ear surgeries on each ear. “I don’t know why we don’t hear about it more.”

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In addition to leading to hearing loss, the growths also trap water and cause frequent infections, which can be particularly harmful for those spending extended periods in the surf. Now that wetsuits are extending seasons longer and longer, that risk is amplified, even for younger surfers.

Surgery is the only real “cure” for surfer’s ear, but Fujioka notes that prevention is likely the best form of treatment.

We've all been there. Photo: Courtesy of Arnaud Mesureur/Unsplash
We’ve all been there. Photo: Arnaud Mesureur/Unsplash

See those guys in the lineup sporting the earplugs? Many, if not all of them, are hoping to prevent surfer’s ear and some serious medical headaches.

For those who think earplugs impair hearing, a few companies, like SurfEars out of Sweden, are designing surf-specific plugs that let sound waves in while keeping the real waves out.

After launching a Kickstarter in 2011, the group of surfers and engineers released a second version of their sound-accommodating surf plugs earlier this year.

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Fujioka is unsure why there is so little publicity surrounding the ear injury, given its prevalence in the surf community, but thinks that surfer’s ear will continue to grow as the sport becomes more popular around the world.

“I am amazed at the number of surfers that do not wear earplugs (my son included), and know surfer’s ear is no joke,” says Fujioka. “I have had the surgeries myself and I could not surf; it was no fun.”