Kelly Slater water in ear

Photo: WSL

The Inertia

Editor’s Note: The following piece is an account of the author’s experience. It is intended to offer insight into a common health issue for surfers and should not replace the advice of a medical professional. If you are experiencing ear problems you think may be a result of surfing, you should consult your physician. 

Spring is kind of an unofficial ear surgery season for surfers suffering from exostosis, also known as surfer’s ear. It’s a common, uncomfortable condition in which the combination of cooler wind and cold water can cause abnormal bone growth in the ear canal.  The growth can eventually completely block the canal which results in severe hearing loss and chronic earaches.

Two years ago I got my second ear surgery to fix my exostosis. As a Northern California surfer, I always assumed I’d have some trouble with this but it wasn’t until I landed a horrific earache that I realized how bad it could be. When the ER nurse looked in my ear and couldn’t see the ear drum she was perplexed and sent me over to see Dr. Gupta, an ear, nose and throat surgeon. He took one look in my ear and asked me if I surfed.

“You have exostosis,” he said. “Your ear is 96 percent blocked.”


Where a smooth tunnel should have been, mine was almost completely filled up with lumps and bumps caused by bone growth that had completely closed up my ear canal.

“You need surgery this spring,” he told me. “If you wait any longer the ear canal will be totally blocked and it will be much more dangerous for me to operate. I won’t be able to locate the eardrum and I’ll be more likely to pierce it during surgery.”

It was a dangerous procedure, he told me, but pointed out that being in San Francisco (obviously, where the water’s pretty cold), he had plenty of experience. As a precaution, he warned me of three things that could possibly go wrong.

“I can pierce your brain,” he said. “I can sever your facial nerve and your face will droop forever, or I can puncture your eardrum and you’ll lose hearing in that ear forever.  I’ve never had any of these complications.”

I gulped and scheduled surgery for that April.


That first ear surgery was three years ago and two years later I got my left ear operated on. Before my first operation, I had searched for as much information on the surgery and recovery as I could find. Every article I found made it seem as minor as an office visit, telling me I’d need to take a few days off work, not lift anything heavy, and I’d be fine in a couple of days.

In my experience, this isn’t true. The surgery is long — over four hours. I woke up feeling like I got hit by a truck. My throat was soar from all the tubes, so it was painful to talk. My lungs hurt from the machines taking over my breathing. My ear was stuffed with a surgical sponge, which was disorienting and frustrating. Also, like a horror movie,  blood drained out of my ear randomly during recovery.  If your experience is anything like mine, you can expect a full two weeks before you feel normal. It sucks. So I’ve put together a comprehensive guide that I wish I’d had before my first surgery.


One or Two Months Before:

You will get a CAT Scan so the doctor has a map to follow of exactly where to drill safely since most of your ear is blocked by bone. Schedule time off work — at least a week — but if you do physical labor at your job I’d suggest two weeks.

2-3 weeks before: 

If the earaches didn’t get you to stop surfing yet, you should now. The last thing you want to do is get ear surgery while you have a pre-existing infection. Personally, I wanted the least amount of sand and ocean junk in my ear as possible that could cause an infection later.

Week of: 

Shop for groceries! I didn’t realize how incapacitated I’d be after the first surgery so for the second one I stocked up on everything I knew I’d need.  Here’s a list for you. Note: Do not buy anything acidic or hard to swallow because your throat may be sore and raw.

1. Non- acidic boxed drinks like apple or grape-flavored juice. When you get home from the hospital, all you’ll want is ice cold hydration and drinking out of a glass will be too difficult. Pop these in the fridge so they’re chilled and waiting for you.

2. Popsicles: The best thing you will experience when you come out of your surgical drug stupor in the hospital will be a delicious popsicle, cooling down your hot and dry mouth. It was all I wanted during my first couple of days recovering at home.


3. Croissants or other soft bread: Your esophagus will be so raw and you won’t have much of an appetite for a few days so soft bread products are great to have around.

4. Eggs: A nice soft-boiled or fried egg gives you the protein you need without upsetting your stomach or hurting your throat (and it’s nice dipped in the soft bread you should have also bought).

5. Chicken Noodle Soup: Or any soup you like that has a clear broth.

6. A Shower Cap: You will eventually want to shower and a cap will help protect your ear from any water getting in.

7. Cotton balls, Vaseline, and plastic baggies: If you want to wash your hair during your recovery you need to keep water from getting into your ear. Plugging it up with a Vaseline coated cotton ball and covering it with a plastic baggy kept the water out.

Day of Surgery

1.Put your comfy clothes on, find the calmest, most supportive person possible to drive you there and pick you up. I’m not going to lie, going into a surgery where you could come out deaf in one ear is pretty nerve racking, so do not pick a high-strung person to be with you.

2.Be on time. The more rushed the nurses are the more they’ll nervously start missing your veins while inserting the necessary tubes. Spare yourself this experience.

3. Do calming breathing exercises and take any pre-surgery drugs prescribed before you get to the hospital. Even though my doctor was a total pro, he’s still a human being that I figured could get nervous before a high-pressure surgery. I felt like the calmer I was, the calmer the doctor would be. So even though I was terrified I just practiced calm breathing and pretended like I wasn’t worried at all.



In the hospital: 

You’ll have been in surgery for over four hours so when the nurse wakes you up you’ll be totally disoriented. Ask for as many popsicles as you’d like, suck down a couple of juice boxes that night and go to bed.

Day one: 

My pain level varied with each ear. My second surgery was more painful so just monitor your ear pain. Your entire esophagus will be sore from the tubes, so just whisper, eat your popsicles and drink your juice boxes. Sit still and rest.  You probably won’t have much of an appetite but if you do, the chicken soup is a good option.

Your ear may be totally blocked with a dissolvable sponge which will make you feel disoriented and off-balance.

Day 2-4: 

Take it easy, hydrate, monitor your pain, and eat your soft foods. You’ll be spaced out as the surgery drugs leave your body. Exercise may not be possible if you can’t take full breaths. You can shower but just be really careful of your ear getting wet.

Day 5-9: 

Your energy will be returning and so will normal breathing. If you want out of the house just take a couple of short, slow walks around the block but not much more than that. Your appetite will be increasing but you won’t crave anything heavy, acidic, or even leafy for a while. Just keep eating your soft foods and soups.

Day 7: 

This is a big day! It’s the day you start putting your ear drops in and you’ll begin to hear better within a couple of days of starting the drops.

Day 10: 

This was the day that I finally started to feel normal again. My appetite began to get stronger and I could eat heavier foods. My lungs began to feel normal so I could start walking further without difficulty. The drops will be doing their work and you should be able to hear almost normally out of your ear. Continue to take it easy but it’s pretty clear sailing from here on out.

Day 30: 

Your doctor will check your healing and let you know when you can go back into the water. For my first surgery, I waited about seven weeks and never had any problems but for my second surgery, I went in the water after only about four and a half weeks, which I found felt a bit more raw and sensitive than my first ear and took longer to heal.



Wear your plugs! Dr. Gupta told me that the first year the ear canal skin is still really fragile and thin so you’re most vulnerable to bone re-growth during this time. Living in Northern California, I wear my hood and plugs religiously but for warmer water, Dr. Gupta said plugs were fine.


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