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The surf harm you hardly ever hear about: Surfer’s Ear

While every surfer told a story or two about surf injuries – a board at the back of the head, a hand cut on a fin, a slipped joint after a particularly violent failure – these injuries are actually rather rare.

There is a much more common, far less mentioned and possibly much more dangerous surf sickness: exostosis (also known as surfer’s ear). It is a problem that affects almost every third surfer and, if left untreated, can cause pain and severe hearing loss.

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The condition is caused by prolonged exposure to cold water and affects both young and old surfers. If the ear canal is irritated for a long period of time, it reacts with bone growth, effectively narrowing the canal and causing hearing loss.

Finally, this bone growth is so pronounced that it can lead to total hearing loss and can only be treated by cutting or shaving the bone growth. This process requires a recovery of six to eight weeks.

A healthy ear (above) against a surfer’s ear (below). Photo: Struna / Shutterstock

“Since we have developed very good wetsuits all year round and surf in increasingly cold water, the irritation caused by the cold water causes exostosis or surfer ear,” says Dr. Ken Fujioka, a San Diego-based doctor and avid surfer has undergone surfer ear surgery on every ear. “I don’t know why we don’t hear about it anymore.”

The growths not only lead to hearing loss, but also trap water and cause frequent infections that can be particularly harmful to those who spend long periods in the surf. Now that wetsuits are lengthening the season, the risk is increasing for younger surfers too.

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

Do you see the guys in the lineup wearing the earplugs? Many, if not all, hope to avoid the surfer’s ear and some serious medical headaches.

For those who believe that earplugs affect hearing, some companies, such as SurfEars from Sweden, have developed surf-specific plugs that let in sound waves and at the same time keep the real waves away.

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Fujioka is not sure why the ear injury is so little known due to its prevalence in the surfing community, but believes the surfer’s ear will continue to grow as the sport becomes more popular around the world.

“I am amazed at the number of surfers who do not wear earplugs (including my son) and know that a surfer’s ear is not a joke,” says Fujioka. “I had the operations myself and couldn’t surf. It was no fun. “

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