Surfer’s Ear Symposium

Surfer’s Ear

What Is It? And How Do I Prevent It?

All You Ever Needed To Know About Surfer’s Ear…

Surfer's Ear

A lot of surfers worry about getting eaten by sharks while they shred. While this is a valid worry in South Africa or New Smyrna Beach, Florida—studies show that you’re more likely to be eaten by a pig than bit by a shark. There is however some eating all of us surfers, and the scary part, is it’s eating our brains! Actually, it’s not eating our brain, just causing horrible damage to our ear canals, and in some cases deafness! It’s the scourge of the sea. I’m talking about exostosis, otherwise known as Surfer’s Ear. Wikipedia says, “Surfer’s Ear is the common name for exostosis, abnormal bone growth, within the ear canal. Surfer’s ear is not the same as swimmer’s ear.

Over time irritation from cold wind and water cause the bone surrounding the ear canal to develop lumps of new bony growth, which constrict the ear canal. The condition is so named due to its prevalence among cold-water surfers. Cold water surfers experience surfer’s ear at about six times the rate of warm water surfers.”

Ask around next time you paddle out, you can bet that someone near you in the line up has suffered from Surfer’s Ear—even Transworld SURF’s Photo Editor Aaron Checkwood was recently hit by Surfer’s Ear.

Here’s his story, along with a ton of information about how you can avoid this horrible condition, and what to do if you already have it.—Chris Cote

Surfer's ear

Here’s What TW Surf Photo Editor Aaron Checkwood Has To Say About Surfer’s Ear:

“About 10 years ago, I was at a contest in Santa Cruz and Doc Scott of Docs Proplugs was there with a huge truck and medical equipment in back. Basically he was going around with it and taking pictures of everyone’s ears to show them how closed up they are from Surfers Ear. Mine was about 80 percent closed up and I began wearing his earplugs to prolong what would be the eventual surgery I had last month. There’s a lot of Urban Myths surrounding the surgery. From what I know, there isn’t a magic laser to do it, but if it is bad enough they’ll peel the ear off and drill from there. Mine was easy. My doctor, Doctor Beros at Scripps La Jolla, made it painless and basically drilled straight through with no pain-whatsoever and I was back in the water after three weeks. I have a friend who didn’t have insurance—and had a doctor who apparently is now disbarred chip—the bone out with a chisel and no anesthesia. So what can my experience tell you? Wear your plugs, find a good, experienced Surfers Ear doctor, and be prepared to be out of the water for a while.”—Aaron Checkwood, Photo Editor, Transworld SURF

How Do You Fight Surfer’s Ear?

Knowing your enemy is what counts. Surfer’s Ear is easily avoidable, and judging by the terrible surgery you have to get if you come down with a case of S.E.—we’ll all be following these avoidance techniques ASAP.

According to nearly every doctor and surfer alike, the best way to fight Surfer’s Ear is always wear earplugs, and if it’s real cold, wear a hood. Originator of the “surfers ear plug” Doc’s Pro Plugs says, “A PROPLUG keeps a warm pocket of air in the canal blocking cold water and air out without loss of hearing and balance. The vent does not leak due to surface tension. A drop may often cover the outside of the vent giving the impression of water in the canal. Simply push on the plug and the drop falls off.” Even Ratboy knows how to prevent Surfer’s Ear, “If I forget my Pro Plugs, I’ll go home to get them, basically, I won’t surf without them.”

What If I Already Have It And Don’t Know?

According to, there are six steps to follow to self-diagnose Surfer’s Ear:

1. Know that surfer’s ear is the common term for a medical condition where the ear canal is partially or completely closed off by excessive and late developing cartilage growth. It is thought to be caused by prolonged and repeated exposure to cold water.

2. Take notice of any pain, popping or crackling that originates in your ear.

3. Tilt your ear toward the ground and shake your head to see if you can hear water trapped in your inner ear.

4. Ask yourself if people are always telling you to turn down the music or the TV, or if they tell you that you talk loudly.

5. Think about whether you’re asking others to speak up, even when they are sitting right next to you.

6. Visit a doctor, preferably an ear specialist, and get a second opinion to verify any diagnosis.

So What If I Have It?

Well, here’s where the fun starts. If you have visited a doctor and are told the bad news that you do in fact have Surfer’s Ear, you will most likely have to get drilled. But remember to do your research, and always get a second opinion. There are new ways that some doctors are treating Surfer’s Ear. Dr. Hetzler at the Palo Alto Medical Center is on the forefront of a new procedure that “by using chisels to remove the ear canal exostosis via the ear canal has replaced the traditional incision behind the ear and all or most use of a drill. The advantages for the patient are less exposure to noise during surgery that can damage hearing, more rapid healing and a faster return to water sports.”

YouTube clip of an ear that is in the beginning stages of Surfer’s Ear.

Helpful Links Regarding Surfers Ear:’s_Ear

One Of Our Good Friends And Ace Photographer, Jason Woolcott, Is Another Sufferer Of Surfer’s Ear, Check Out His Account Of The Awful Ailment:

“I slide my way through the crowded bar spotting an old time friend. Usually I would be excited to have an opportunity to catch up with my buddy. Instead I grab my jacket and head out into the quite night. Am I rude? Or do I just not feel like reading lips and making an ass of myself when I don’t catch what he is saying. After spending the last 20 years surfing in the less than temperate waters of California, I have an extreme case of exostosis, more commonly known as surfers ear. At twenty years old I had my first surfers ear procedure done on my left ear. When you sign the waiver before going under the knife you see things like: the procedure is not guaranteed, can cause permanent hearing loss and possibly death. You shrug it off saying to yourself “this is the 21st century and medicine is good these days. I’m sure this is just legal crap” well, in my case I lost 30% of my hearing after the surgery.“

Fast forward to November 2007, once again, I was enduring painful ear infections and a permanently clogged right ear. After 3 trips to the ear doc he finally said that I should stop shrugging it off and get the procedure done to remove the bone growth. After what I had been through the first time I was frightened that I would lose hearing in my other ear as well and get really comfortable with saying “What, sorry, I did not hear you” for the rest of my life. Not to mention that even though I have good health insurance I will be going $1500 out of pocket to have some one chisel bone out of my ear.

Surfer ear is caused by exposure to cold water and cold wind for prolonged periods of time. Well, that pretty much sums up my life. There are many ways to avoid developing surfers ear such as: stay out of the water (yeah right), wear ear plugs, wear a hood, put on a beanie after getting out of the water to prevent the residual water left in the ear after surfing to get cold from wind. But as surfers, we are lucky if we remember our suit, leash, and wax. Adding one more thing to remember before paddling out into the frigid lineup. Using products like swim ear after you get out is only effective in reducing the chance of ear infection.

Here is a little motivation for you: The procedure goes something like this: 1st you are put under using general anesthetic which in itself is dangerous and is not something you want to do often, save for if you need a liver transplant or something serious. 2nd depending on the shape of your ear canal the doctor may chose to make an incision in the back of your ear to allow better access and visibility. This means they will basically cut your ear off and than stitch it back on afterwards which sucks, it takes almost twice as long to heal. Or go straight through the ear canal. 3rd the instruments used are not what you would want stuck in your ear while you sleep. They use a surgical drill, kinda like a Dremel tool, micro chisels and a hammer, scalpels and a few other scary tools. Finally, if you have no complications you will be out of the water for about a month. I have a few friends who have had serious complications which required a second more extensive surgery to deal with infection and poor craftsmanship by the doctor which put one friend out for three months. Imagine how many swells you will miss.

If left untreated, surfers ear can cause hearing loss from repetitive ear infection, which can damage the eardrum, so bad that complete hearing loss can occur. It is also painful dealing with plugged, infected ears all the time and is a nightmare if you plan on picking up chicks at the bar.—Jason Wolcott

Did we miss something or are you yourself suffering from Surfer’s Ear? Let us know in the comment box below!

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