Surfer’s Ear: symptoms, causes and treatment

surfers ear treatment
Surfer’s Ear never was a major concern of mine. Sure, I had heard about it and had even been warned about it. But I always thought surfer’s ear only developed in surfers that lived in Santa Cruz, Oregon and beyond. The water in Southern California was too warm to cause surfer’s ear, right?One day last winter, after an early morning surf in Ventura, I noticed that I couldn’t get water to drain out of my left ear. No matter how hard shook my head, how high I jumped on one foot, or how far I stuck a Q-tip in my ear, I could not get the water out. I waited a few days hoping that it would eventually evaporate, but to no avail.

I decided that it was a probably a good idea to head to my doctor, Dr. Michael Merrin in Santa Barbara. I was hoping that the doctor would find a build up of wax and after a quick ear canal cleaning, I would be on my way home. I was shocked when told me I had severe surfer’s ear… in both ears!

Developing surfer’s ear at such a young age was a big surprise. I guess all the years of those early morning surf sessions before school in 58 degree water finally caught up with me. No wonder the surf PE instructor always wore earplugs!

What is Surfer’s Ear?

Surfer’s ear (the common name for exostosis) is the name given to a bony growth that develops inside the ear canal. The ear canal is basically a cylindrical tube, and when the tube is constricted by bone growth, you have surfer’s ear.

diagram of surfers ear

In my case of surfer’s ear, water had become trapped behind the bone growth and was sitting next to my ear drum. If the water stayed trapped for too long, an infection would have likely developed.

What Causes Surfer’s Ear?

instagram of surfers earDr. Merrin explained that surfer’s ear is caused by cold water and wind. When wind evaporates water out of your ear canal, it causes an extremely low temperature in the surrounding skin and bone. This cold temperature stimulates bone growth.

It’s not completely understood why cold temperature causes a bony growth to develop, but doctors believe it’s an evolutionary defense mechanism.  Basically, your body reacts to cold temperature by growing a protective layer of bone around the ear canal to stop cold water from entering it.

It should be noted that surfing is not the only activity that will cause exostosis. Swimming, skiing, diving and even driving a convertible can cause tiny bone growths in the ear.

Surfer’s Ear Treatment and Surgery

Unfortunately, my prognosis meant that I wouldn’t be able to walk out of Dr. Merrin’s office with a simple ear cleaning. My worst fear came true when Dr. Merrin explained that I needed to undergo a canaloplasty in both ears.

The traditional surgery to correct surfer’s ear required making a large incision in the back of the year so that the outer ear could be folded forward which gave doctors access the canal. Then, a drill was used to widen the canal by shaving off the bone growth.

Luckily for me, Dr. Merrin preffered a minimally-invasive type of surgery that used an osteotome and curette. Watch the video below to see the surgery in process (fast forward to 1:49).


This type of surgery allows for a quicker recovery time (out of the water for about 3 weeks per ear). I took oral anti-biotics for the first week and then used ear drops for the second and third week.

What’s the worst thing about surfer’s ear surgery? The price tag: $15,000 per ear! Thankfully I had insurance and it payed for most of the surgery.

How to prevent surfer’s ear

surfears surfers ear plugsThe good news is that surfer’s ear can be prevented. Ever see those surfers at your local break wearing neon colored ear plugs? You probably made fun of them, but hopefully now you will decide to join them.

Ear plugs keep water out of the ear canal and can be bought at your local surf shop for around $15. I had custom ear plugs made for $160 but they both fell out and I lost them. Now I use SurfEars and I highly recommend them. They fit snug and don’t block sounds like every other ear plug on the market; being able to hear while surfing is a must. Pick some up and save yourself a trip to the ear doctor.

Dr. Merrin told me that sometimes ear plugs are not enough. Some surfers develop surfers ear even if they use ear plugs because the cranium around the ear canal gets cold.  He recommended wearing a wetsuit hood on the coldest winter days.


The bottom line is that surfer’s ear sucks.  You will miss 3 weeks of surfing for post-surgery recovery (per ear) and be left with a hefty bill.  Don’t even think of getting the surgery without health insurance.  If you haven’t developed surfer’s ear yet, then you can prevent it by wearing ear plugs when you surf in cold water.

If you like this article, please share it on facebook or twitter.  A share just takes a second but means a lot to me!  Also, please like my facebook page!

Join the Conversation


    1. says: TravelGrom

      Hi Torry, I had the surgery just a few months ago and it went really well. I was out of the water for about 1 month.

      Dr. Michael Merrin in Santa Barbara performed my surgery, he’s one top regarded surgeons for surfer’s ear. Unfortunately, I was one of the last patients he treated before he retired in July of this year.

      You might try calling the De La Vina Surgery Center (805-563-9814) and asking for Dr. Merrin’s email address so that you can email him and ask him who he recommends.

      Hope this helps.

  1. Good article, thanks.

    I just had surgery last week Monday. 3,5 hours on my left ear and there wasn’t time to do the right. Doctors can (and will) do both ears but in hindsight I’m kind of glad they only did the one not because of pain but because you have a dressing in the ear which makes you deaf. The pain when you come out is there, but not bad. The next morning I didn’t even bother with pain killers. People made it out to be such a bad procedure. It’s not. But get a very experienced surgeon, that is critical. I’ve been windsurfing 15 years, kayaking 10, bodyboarding 6 years and surfing 2. I wore ear plugs the last year or so, since having known I had surfers ear. My advice – wear ear plugs! I regret not having worn them. Although not every person will be affected, rather be safe than sorry, and check yourself out.


      1. No it’s actually quite cheap to be honest. The surgeons fees were R7000. Anaesthetist will be in the region of R5500 and hospital fees were R27 500 (which is nuts because you go home the same day). Everything was covered except for about half of the surgeon’s fees – this will depend whether he charges 200 or 300 or 400% of medical aid rates. And I just have a plain hospital plan on my medical aid. To convert to US$’s, just divide by 10,8 at time of writing. So in the end it will cost me around US$ 325 when the surgeon’s fees claim comes back, the other two are covered already by my medical aid..

  2. says: Torry Lozano

    I wanted to follow up on my last post (late last year 2013). I did a lot of research and interviewed or called several surgeons. That really paid off. I was able to find a great doctor is Santa Cruz. I live in Laguna Beach but the drive up was really worth it. I had 95% closure of both ears. Dr. Douglas Hetzler performed surgery on BOTH ears and assured me that this would not be a problem for me. Most surgeons will only do one at a time, meaning you would have to go through surgery and recovery twice. He was right! I had expected the worst, but I had almost NO pain. We drove back to SoCal right after surgery and I felt fine. Everything involved with the surgery was top notch. I couldn’t recommend him more. The recovery was really easy. No packing in the ears. Just a bit of cotton for a couple of days to take care of a little bleeding and draining. No pain! I saw a doctor near home for the post recovery check ups and cleanings. I was back in the water in a month, but I probably could have been in sooner. I only wish I’d done it sooner! Feels great!!

Leave a comment
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *