Sound to Sea

Surf’s up…but not for cold, wet, unprotected ears

Sophia Farrow, Associate Editor

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One of the most popular Outer Banks sports endangers its participants with the possibility of hearing loss. Surfing or swimming in cold water consistently can cause exostosis of the ear. Exostosis has become more prevalent in the Outer Banks over the past few years, due to the cold water that surfers frequently surf in.

Exostosis of the ear is the thickening of the bone surrounding the ear canal. This is caused by the ear canal repeatedly being exposed to cold water or cold wind. The thickening restricts the ability of sound to reach the eardrum, causing hearing loss; sometimes to the point of total deafness.

“Exostosis of the ear canal or ‘surfer’s ear’ are benign bony growths in the ear canal associated with exposure to cold water and wind. Water colder than 63.5 degrees Fahrenheit has been shown to stimulate this abnormal bone growth,” local audiologist Krista Follmer said. “These growths can make people more prone to ear infections and wax build-up. They can cause hearing loss if they grow large and prevent sound from traveling to the inner ear.”

The surfing season can start as early as the end of the winter season and cold water temperatures prevail throughout the spring season. With this being the case, many surfers are exposed to cold water temperatures and should wear ear protection.

“This formation of bone on top of preexisting bone is essentially a defense mechanism – the body is attempting to protect the more sensitive eardrum by constricting the size of the ear canal. Theoretically, narrowing the ear canal will decrease the likelihood of the eardrum being exposed to the elements,” said registered nurse Jodi Wyant.

Once exostosis of the ear has reached a certain point surgery may be needed to once again hear normally. There are two different types of surgical procedures to remove the bone growth inside the ear. The first procedure calls for an incision to be made behind the ear and then a surgical drill is used to clear away the bone growth. The second procedure does not use an incision behind the ear, but the drill is instead used to remove the growth through the ear canal.

“Once exostosis of the ear is present and narrowing of the ear canal has occurred, there is no reversal except through an invasive surgical procedure that requires several post-surgical weeks of healing,” Wyant said.

The surgery for exostosis repairs the ear canal to nearly 100 percent pre-exostosis. However, it does not prevent exostosis recurrence. As long as precautions against cold waters and winds are taken then exostosis should not reoccur.

Multiple companies now sell advanced ear plugs for surfers. The company SurfEars designed a pair of state of the art, comfortable surfing and swimming ear plugs in 2011 that allow a person to hear but prevent water from getting in their ear.

“It is important to protect ears from cold water and options include non-custom ear plugs and custom ear plugs. Inexpensive wax ear plugs can be purchased at any drug store but have some safety considerations as they will also block sound,” Follmer said. “You can find non-custom molds that allow sound to enter through the mold while preventing water from entering the ear canal at some local surf stores. The fit and effectiveness of non-custom molds depends on the shape of an individual’s ear canal.”

The neoprene hoods of wetsuits also work to block cold water from reaching the inner ear. The small amount of water that is trapped by the wetsuits warms near the ear and also prevents wind from reaching the ear.

“In the cold water I do not wear earplugs but I do where the wetsuit hood. The wetsuit hood is uncomfortable at first but I get use to it pretty quick, sometimes when I fall it will fill up with water and that kind of sucks,” said senior Tommy Tillett. “I wear it because it keeps me super warm in the wind and when I duck dive or fall.”

If exostosis of the ear is diagnosed early, wearing earplugs while in cold water can prevent it from worsening. Taking cautionary steps such as wearing wetsuits and earplugs when in cold water will lead to healthy ears and no surgery.

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Surf’s up…but not for cold, wet, unprotected ears