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What is surfer’s ear?

When writer and surfer Brad Roberts sought treatment for a rare condition, he discovered that he was in danger of a more common but potentially more serious ailment.

‘Every car owner knows this scenario – especially those who are off the motor plan. You take your car in for a regular service, but a few hours later you get a call from the mechanic and it turns out there’s a lot more wrong than a simple oil change and tune-up can resolve. Then you need to decide how much money you’re prepared to spend to keep your car in working order before the next service,’ says Brad.

The same thing happened to Brad recently at a doctor’s appointment.

‘When you’re as old as me – 42 – you’re pretty much off the motor plan. Suddenly the kilograms you used to shed with just a couple of surf sessions are a lot more stubborn, and when you do manage to find the time for a paddle and a wave you run out of steam a lot quicker than you used to,’ he says.

‘I was actually at the ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist about some dizziness I’d been experiencing that had been diagnosed as benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. As part of the normal procedure, the doctor had a look in my ears, which is when he saw it.’ “You have the beginning of surfer’s ear,” he announced. “Your left ear is half closed up.”

‘I was not surprised to receive this news. Every surfer in Cape Town knows at least three other surfers who have had surfer’s ear. (This is not a statistically accurate observation, but if it seems like a lot, that’s because it is. A study in Spain discovered that 86% of people who had been surfing for longer than 10 years had developed surfer’s ear.)’

‘These surfers are usually grizzled old men with leathery skin, bloodshot eyes and scarred feet. They take great delight in telling complete strangers changing into their wetsuit in a parking lot how a doctor literally had to drill a hole in their skull. Then they’ll shove a wodge of Prestik into each ear and laugh all the way out to the break.’

Surfer’s ear explained

Surfer’s ear is a colloquial term for a condition called exostosis of the external auditory canal. It occurs because repeated exposure to cold water and wind causes the bone in the ear canal to gradually grow a node that blocks it. Basically it’s your body’s defence mechanism against your repeated abuse of it. Most people only notice this becoming a problem when they experience lack of hearing in one ear, by which time the blockage is quite severe.

The cure is fairly rudimentary: an operation in which a doctor will use either a drill or a chisel to carve away the growth. And there’s a strict six-week recovery period where the surfer may not enter the water, during which the waves are proverbially guaranteed to be fantastic.

‘My own surfer’s ear was not yet severe enough to warrant an operation – although, now that the doctor mentioned it, I had been noticing a slight change in my hearing. My ear canal was just beginning to close up. But I was warned to buy some earplugs and wear them when I surfed. So I bought some immediately,’ says Brad.

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.