Inside your brain the hypothalamus monitors weather ready to implement emergency measures to protect you from extreme cold. The hypothalamus is so determined to keep essential organs found within your core warm, that it will sacrifice extremities by lowering blood flow to those areas. If you work, play, or live in places with cold weather, you know to keep an eye on toes or fingers that have gone numb, but did you know you should also be thinking about your ears?
In an attempt to protect you from cold the hypothalamus can enact some extreme measures. For example if you work or play outside on a consistent bases, your body might increase bone growth in the ear canal. This growth blocks the cold but also the ear, causing ear infections and hearing loss.
The medical term for abnormal bony growth is exotosis. Exotosis of the outer ear is usually due to exposure of cold wind and water and is commonly known as surfer’s ear. The use of wetsuits and other gear that promotes cold water surfing means this condition is common among surfers. A study in Japan showed that 80% of surfers had exotosis. Still, surfer’s ear is a misnomer since exotosis is prevalent among people who enjoy cold weather sports like skiing, snowboarding, fishing, kayaking, underwater diving, or sailing.
Outgrowth of bone into the external ear canal might sound like something from a horror movie, but exotosis is the body’s way of protecting ears from cold wind and water. This condition is usually more prevalent in one ear than both. Growth of bone constricts the ear canal, making it difficult to drain water, dirt, and ear wax. This inability to allow the ear to clean itself—which is the basic job of ear wax, means that the person with this condition will suffer from repeated ear infections and results in hearing loss that can be permanent.
Surgery is the only option available for someone with this deviant bone growth due to cold weather sports. Two types of surgery allow for the removal of excess bone. The first is done behind the ear. A small drill is used to make an incision and the bone is then mechanically sloughed away. The second surgery uses a drill as well, but instead of entering from behind the ear, the drill is inserted directly into the ear canal. Both surgeries have risks and extended recovery time where outdoor sports are prohibited. Speak to your surgeon about the option best for you, and when you go back to your outdoor sport remember to protect your ears.
Protecting the ears from extreme weather is essential. Exotosis of the ear develops as the body’s response to cold wind and water, so alleviating these conditions keeps the body from creating abnormal bone in the ear. The best way to protect the ears is to invest in custom ear molds or swim molds. An audiologist can measure and fit your ears for protection that will keep you safe as you enjoy your favorite cold weather outdoor activities.
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