The Ears Have It
Surfers Ear is not a Cool!
by Corky Carroll
Every year when it gets cold I like to talk to you about exostoses, commonly known as “Surfers Ear,” and how to deal with it. Many full time hard-core surfers, such as myself and many of you I am sure, have had or do have or will have issues with this. For years this has been a real problem and the surgical treatment for this has evolved radically in just the past couple of years.
I first dealt with this like 40 years ago. Water kept getting stuck in my ears. The would plug up and I couldn’t hear, then they would unplug, plug up again and they kept doing that. I went to an ear specialist and was told I had the dreaded boney growths that form in the ear canals to protect the ear drums from the cold and win. Surfers ear.
At that time the surgery consisted of having the ear cut in the back and folded out onto the cheek. Then the surgeron would go in with a drill, like a dentist drill, and grind off the boney bumps. I have heard that some doctors even would use a chisel for this. Then they would pack it solid for a couple of weeks, followed by about 4 to 8 more weeks keeping dry and letting the skin grow back. It was not a whole lot of fun.
Thankfully this has all changed and Orange Counties very own Dr. Carol Jackson has led the way in developing the new laser techniques to treat this, she is THE leader in the treatment of Surfers Ear. I ask her every year to update all of us on what’s new in treatment. The following is what she just gave me...
“When exostoses enlarge over years of surfing and block over 80% of the ear canal diameter, they disrupt the ear’s protective mechanisms. That’s when plugging and uncomfortable infections called “surfers ear” (or “swimmers ear”) occur. Problems can become more frequent and severe despite diligent office and home self-care. That’s when they should be removed.
Micro surgical laser-assistive removals are now more complete, safe, and less invasive with than ever before. No more external ear incisions. With this technique and over sixteen-year follow-up, exostoses do not re-grow to require further surgical removal. It’s a permanent solution with minimal discomfort! Usual non-water activities except heavy lifting can be resumed the next day.
The bony growths can be halted or prevented by consistent use of ear plugs while surfing - not the long “hot dog” or “Christmas tree” plugs, but the flatter ones. Sized shallow plugs or disposable silicone plugs at any sporting or drug store work well. Keep them clean! Roll the silicone into a ball and flatten to make a thick frisbee disk to press in and cover the ear canal.
Custom plugs from a mold impression of your ear canal are even better and can be made with a membrane covered vent to allow hearing during wearing them. They are comfortable, last years, float, come in bright colors even with glitter, and can be on a lanyard. It’s rare they get lost!
If your symptom is plugging or it sometimes seems like people are mumbling, you may have hearing reduction either from surfer’s ear or completely unrelated. We occasionally diagnose treatable or more serious unrelated hearing and ear problems in surfers with exostosis such acoustic neuroma, a benign tumor, or hydrops which is elevated inner ear fluid pressure, or other treatable causes. You can have more than one cause of ear or hearing reduction at the same time. Causes may be different in ear each so it’s important to have a micro exam and hearing test in each ear.
One patient stopped surfing for ten years and avoided ear care thinking he had advanced exostosis and didn’t want surgery. He turned out to have large dry wax impactions! One office micro removal to “uncork” his ears eliminated his plugging and restored his hearing to the level of his hearing nerve capability.
To see the severity of your exostosis on camera, a status check, and evaluation of other ear conditions, it’s prudent to see an ear doctor with an office microscope. Have a hearing test in a sound booth by an audiologist or hearing professional. Take care of your ears. You only have two for life!”
To contact Dr. Jackson’s ear clinic and more info visit www.myeardoctors.com
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