Watersports and Your Ears

Many of us spend some of our free time in the water. How many of us are aware of surfer’s ear? I’m guessing not that many. I was one of those average people out there just having a blast in the water, not having a care in the world. After a few years I had heard about surfer’s ear, but like many things in life, I just thought, “Nah, that won’t happen to me”, and I continued…
What is it?
Let me first explain what it is in laymans terms. When your ear is exposed to cold wind and/or water, the veins in the ear canal swell up and this action, over a period of time, results in bony growths to develop within the ear canal. Eventually the bony growths will narrow the ear canal to such a degree that it traps wax and water in the canal, which will result in infections, and eventually hearing loss. Although typically a slowish process, it’s serious, and does not reverse. Staying out of the water does not improve your condition! The common theme here – prevention. More on that just now. Whilst my understanding is is that not everyone will get it, the chances are very high if you’re active in the water. Cold water being worse, and the evaporative effect of wind further accelerating the process. Note that people surfing, bodyboarding, kayaking, windsurfing, SUP’ing, kitesurfing, sailing, diving, sailing – all those sports will expose you to the risk.
How to prevent it
Always wear ear plugs, and if possible wear a hoodie over that as well. If you live in a place where you windsurf in water that is 24 degrees, I’d still wear ear plugs if I were you. Naturally a neoprene hood would be overkill in those conditions. Doc’s Proplugs are a great investment and the plugs I wear. The main idea here is to keep the water in your ear canal warm. The Proplugs have a small hole allowing water (and sound!) in but they keep the water warm, that is critical. Ear plugs which almost make you deaf don’t encourage people to wear plugs at all so shop around before you buy and see what is available on the market.
Don’t be afraid to see a specialist 
I was diagnosed with advanced sufer’s ear according to my general practitioner more than a year ago. My left ear got blocked and wouldn’t unblock, so I thought I’d just get it cleaned out – wrong. From that day I wore ear plugs when entering the water but the damage had been done already so I was just delaying the inevitable. Eventually it got blocked again so I sought out more professional advice and approached Dr. John Steer here in Cape Town. He checked out my ears and also did a hearing test, and confirmed what I had pretended could not happened – both my ears were extremely closed up, particularly the left one!
I must point out that the danger of not seeing a doctor is that A) you won’t know what’s going on (obviously) and B) if you wait too long and your ear closes it makes the surgeons job very difficult as they won’t accurately know where your ear canal is and the chances of causing damage during the surgery is greater. C) you could incur hearing loss and because the process is relatively slow you won’t be aware of it. Be smart, see your doctor sooner rather than later.
What do they do?
There are two main techniques used to “get rid of” the bony growths. The “old fashioned” method is basically cutting behind your ear, flapping it over and then using a combination of drilling and chiselling to get out the bone. But from what I understand the better method is as Dr. Steer does it, he makes a small cut on your outer ear, and chisels out the bone and only uses the drill very close to the eardrum, and as little as possible. To be honest, get a surgeon with a lot of experience and one who does not cut off half your ear! There are a lot of horror stories out there, and I believe mostly because patients don’t listen to their doctors. But going with someone experienced is worth it. If the doctor says don’t get water on the ear when you shower after surgery for several weeks, you listen. Basic stuff. Recovery is swift I found. Perhaps 4 to 5 weeks, maybe 6. If you’re unlucky (or unhealthy) 12 weeks… You should be fit and healthy for your own sake anyway.
You wear this for a week. The ear might weep some liquid/blood from time to time in that period. Not painful, just ticklish. Put on old pillow slips.
Tiny cut and those stitches are nothing. You can usually sleep on the ear within two weeks or so.
These guys help at night for easy sleeping 🙂
How bad is the operation?
I had my left ear done on 3 March 2014. The original plan was to do both ears, but after 3,5 hours on my left there wasn’t sufficient time to do the other. I was bleak, in fact I was angry, but looking back I am very glad I only had the one ear done. If you can handle being deaf for 3 or 4 weeks, do both ears. My suggestion is do only one though. And having said that, the surgeon only has a given time frame in theatre and cannot make any promises anyway. My right ear was operated on on 12 May 2014, a 3 hour surgery. And between those operations I was already back in the water. I also suggest you wait longer between surgeries, I felt very tired for several weeks after the second surgery.
When you wake up, you might experience some solid pain for about half an hour to an hour. Just ask for more drugs. That night some pain, but you get pain killers so it’s really not bad. Eating is a slow process on the first night. The next morning I stopped taking pain killers already. It is honestly not that bad at all and really nothing to fear, and I’m not a fan of pain. I took my pain killers at night because you cannot sleep on the operated ear. Which is another concern if you get both done at the same time.
There are loads of horror stories floating around about the operation. Any operation is serious, but it’s really not nearly as bad as I expected. That is why I signed up so quickly for the second.
Get those ears looked at!!!!!!!
If you’re active in the water you should be wearing ear plugs. Also, go and see a doctor so you know exactly where you stand. You will increase the quality of your life. Although my hearing was good even before the operation, it’s ultra sharp now. It’s really amazing. In fact it’s bloody brilliant, and for the record it was already good before the operations – I was just lucky. 15 years windsurfing, 10 years whitewater kayaking, 6 years bodyboarding and a wee bit of surfing and I was properly screwed. I know of people who had messed their ears up before the age of 16. Get your ear plugs right away, and have your ears checked out just in case. If you live in Cape Town, Dr. Steer without a doubt. A fine gentlemen and with results which speak for themselves from many satisfied watermen, and women. Click here to visit his site.
Take care,
Adrian Tregoning
(All photos of me, the rest I took  -all rights reserved. They serve to spice up the article and there are no gory photos of the operation, because it’s really nothing to fear)

2 thoughts on “Watersports and Your Ears

  1. Great Article (And stunning pics too – as usual).
    Since my first headbutt of a my mast from a windsurfing jump gone wrong I’ve been a dedicated helmet wearer for windsurfing. As part of working at a refinery I got hearing tested and ear checked up every year and never had any problems. While probably not as good as custom made ear plugs, I think always wearing a helmet that has the ear protection pieces will also go a long way to avoiding surfers ear while windsurfing or kiting as it at least keeps the wind out.

    Another benefit of ear plugs (or a helmet with ear pieces) for windsurfing is that if you do ever decide to for a forward loop and land flat on the side of your head you won’t burst your ear drums.

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