Table of Contents
What Causes Surfer’s Ear?
Repeated exposure of your ear canal to cold water and wind can cause surfer’s ear.
It’s the evaporative cooling of the ear canal that stimulates bone growth. Excessive bone growth can start to block your ear canal, changing how sound travels to the eardrum and increasing the risk of infection due to water and debris getting trapped behind the bony lumps.
Some surfers have large exostoses on one side and small or none on the other. Presumably, this is because of the prevailing wind direction at their local beaches.
Some people are also more inclined to develop surfer’s ear, and it’s thought this could be due to genetic reasons.
Surfing is not the only activity associated with exostosis of the ear canal. Swimming, diving, jet-skiing, and even driving a convertible can cause abnormal bone growths in the ear from repeated exposure to wind, water and evaporative cooling.
What Is External Auditory Exostosis?
Exostosis is a non-cancerous (or benign) growth of new bone over existing bone.
Surfer’s ear is medically known as external auditory exostosis: A broad-based bone lesion grows from the temporal bone and projects into the external auditory canal. The image below is a magnified view of surfer’s ear inside the ear canal.
Your temporal bones are at the sides and base of your skull.
Exostosis is also called osteoma and bone spur.
Many types of exostosis may occur on a wide range of bones in the human body, including:
- Footballer’s ankle (a lesion on the ankle bone)
- Buccal exostosis (a lesion on the lower jaw or upper jaw)
- Hereditary multiple exostoses (multiple bone lesions)
- Subungual exostosis (a lesion on the tip of the toe or finger)
- Torus mandibularis (a lesion on the lower jaw)
- Torus palatinus (a lesion on the roof of the mouth)
Surfer’s Ear Symptoms
You may have surfer’s ear and be completely symptom-free.
Patients typically present with a secondary complaint, such as ear pain, hearing loss, or a sensation of fullness in the ear (called occlusion).
Early symptoms of surfer’s ear include water or debris becoming trapped in the ear more frequently. And it often becomes harder to get the water and debris out of the ear. If the water and debris remain trapped long enough, the risk of ear infections increases.
If your ear canal narrows further with the continued growth of the exostoses, ear infections can take longer to settle and become more frequent.
More significant narrowing of the ear canal due to the growth of the exostoses will eventually result in conductive hearing loss.
Diagnosing and Treating Surfer’s Ear
Surfer’s ear is identified using an otoscope or microscope to view the bony growths protruding under the skin of the ear canal.
Patient history is essential in making a diagnosis of this disease. You likely have many years of repetitive exposure to cold water and wind, often through water activities such as surfing, swimming or kayaking.
Using the microscope used in ear cleaning by microsuction, your ear health practitioner can quickly identify the surfer’s ear.
If the condition is causing pain, conductive hearing loss, or repeated ear infections, you’ll need a referral to an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) for treatment.
Often the only way to treat exostosis of the external auditory canal is to remove the bony growths surgically. The procedure is usually performed through the ear canal using tiny chisels.
Is Surfer's Ear Painful?
Surfer’s ear is usually not painful. However, earache caused by repeated ear infections can be painful. Pain is often secondary to an ear infection initiated by external auditory exostoses.
Is Surfers Ear the Same as Swimmers Ear?
Surfer’s ear is not the same as swimmer’s ear. An infection does not cause exostoses or bony growth inside your ear canal, but swimmer’s ear is.
However, they are commonly associated with the surfer’s ear, which carries the risk of ear infection of the outer ear canal or otitis externa.
If you have surfer’s ear, the water trapped inside your ear canal can cause an infection. This infection is commonly referred to as swimmer’s ear. You may initially present with symptoms of swimmer’s ear if water is trapped inside your ear because of surfer’s ear.
How to Prevent Surfer’s Ear
As they say, prevention is better than cure!
The best prevention is to protect your ears from cold water and wind when you can.
Earplugs, a wetsuit hoody, earmuffs, or a hat that helps shield your ears will likely help.
Custom-fit swimmers or surfers’ earplugs can work well for those who frequent cold, wet and windy environments.