Heard about Surfer's Ear?

Doug Rankin's experience with surfer's ear. This article originally appeared in NZ Canoeing 01.1.

I recently spent a night in hospital after a small operation to remove bone growths known as exostoses (plural) from my left ear. I have not been paddling for the last two months too while the ear heals. Bummer! I've got some in my right ear too which might need attention; they only operate on one side at a time.

You might wonder why anyone would want to write about such an issue. Well the condition is preventable, and for some of you who are not too long in the tooth or have only started paddling, or conversely are now immersing your head in cold water more than normal, you might want to take some affirmative action to prevent getting the same condition and having the same operation in the future. I started paddling in 1971 in the days of canvas boats, but always specialized in staying upright. I have only really started spending more time upside down in cold water over the last ten years of paddling, as I have got into more river playing and the like.

'Surfer's ear' arises from exposure of the ears to cold water and often affects surfers and divers in New Zealand. It does not affect such sports people in warm water environments. What happens is that constant exposure of the ear canal to cold water stimulates growth of bone tissue on the sides of the ear canal close to the eardrum. As these lumps of bone grow into the ear canal they start to reduce the size of the ear canal and impair hearing. These growths can eventually seal off the eardrum resulting in a complete loss of hearing in that ear. This is possibly the body's natural response to protect the eardrum from constant cold-water exposure. In my case I had three such lumps of bone protruding into the left ear canal. With a gap of only 0.5mm between them, rather than the normal 5-8 mm diameter ear canal, my hearing was impaired! I have yet to find out how bad the right ear is.

The solution to the problem is a re-bore, although the medics call it an exostectomy. They cut the skin back off the bone, drill away the growths with a small high-speed water cooled drill and then put the skin back down on the bone so that it can grow over the bone. All fine and dandy but you hope the surgeon doesn't slip and that he/she's in a good mood! The waiting and no paddling comes in while you let everything heal properly. Any water getting in could assist an infection and really play havoc with your ear. You become an expert showering with a cup over your ear too, and at deflecting smart comments questioning your activities and sanity.

So what can you do to prevent such a condition developing? No paddling/surfing/diving in cold water environments. Probably not an option if you're a really keen paddler. Have the odd reaming when required. Maybe okay but it clutters up hospitals and causes some discomfort and inability to paddle for a few months if you take things seriously. There is another alternative, namely wearing earplugs!

Earplugs are the best solution if you want to ensure protection and there are clinics around offering custom made ones. However, solid ones can impair hearing and balance for some people, so naturally some people don't like them.

I have recently heard of plugs fitted with a small hole down their center, which is good enough to allow you to hear but small enough to keep the water out. These sound like an ideal compromise and I am sourcing some now to try. I'll report on their utility and user friendliness in a future issue once I have used them for a while.

I think it's time for this message to be spread more actively to all paddlers, so people can make informed choices about how they can look after themselves and paddle without developing such conditions. I will be back to surfing that front wave and river trips as soon as I can, but probably with plugs in my ears and a little older and wiser. See you on a river sometime soon.

As well as ear-plugs, you way want to consider a fuzzy-rubber hood or the SurfMuff.