Surfer's ear (exostosis)

Is surfer's ear common?

Also known as surfer’s ear, exostosis is a condition that results in the growth of additional bone within the ear canal. It may occur in just one ear or both. The growths, referred to as exostoses, generally do not cause pain, but they may make it easier for water and debris to get stuck in the ear canal, resulting in painful infections. In some severe cases, hearing loss may occur. Currently, there is no data on the prevalence of exostosis in the ear, but it is known that people in their 30s and 40s are the most affected and that men are more affected than women.

Causes of surfer's ear

Although no definitive cause of exostosis has been found, repeated exposure to cold water and chilly winds are believed to encourage the development of the bony growths. The condition is more commonly experienced by surfers, sailors and swimmers.

How can surfer's ear be prevented?

If you swim or surf regularly, wearing a wetsuit hood or a set of swimming earplugs may help to prevent the development of exostoses, shielding your ears from excessive exposure to the wind or water. Avoiding outdoor activities in very cold or windy conditions is also recommended. 

Signs and symptoms of surfer's ear

The most common symptoms of exostosis include hearing loss and repeated ear infections. As exostoses develop, they can narrow the ear canal, leading to conductive hearing loss. In some cases, the growth of exostoses can be severe, with complete blockages forming within the affected ear. 

Exostoses may also make water and other debris more likely to become trapped within the ear, leading to a greater risk of ear infections. The severity of the symptoms experienced does vary from person to person.

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Treatment of surfer's ear disease

Exostosis is generally diagnosed by a doctor or audiologist with a visual inspection known as an otoscopy. In some cases, an x-ray or scan may be needed to confirm the diagnosis. Additional testing may also be undertaken to determine if the condition has resulted in any permanent hearing loss.

Once exostosis has been formally diagnosed, the bony growth may be surgically removed from within the ear. This type of surgery, known as a canalplasty, is generally quite successful, helping to relieve the symptoms of the condition. If you aren’t experiencing any uncomfortable symptoms, your exostoses may simply need to be monitored and treated as needed.

Surfer's ear surgery: is it painful?

Surgical treatment for surfer's ear is necessary when the exostoses are symptomatic with water trapping or ear infections. Surgery may also be recommended if the exostoses are large and if ongoing water exposure is anticipated for the individual.

The procedure is often performed through the ear canal using very small chisels. Discomfort after surgery is mild, and recovery time may take a few weeks to months. It is strongly advised to keep the ear out of water for up to 8 weeks after surgery.

Risks and consequences of surfer's ear

Surfer's ear can result in risks of hearing loss, recurrent infections, otorrhea, a sensation of aural fullness, tinnitus, and cerumen impaction.

Probable consequences of exostosis include pain, discomfort, and blockages of air, mucus, or ear wax. Those with surfer’s ear may also develop similar complications.  

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