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Published on July 2nd, 2013 | by Neil Egsgard

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Cold & Deaf: Losing Your Hearing to Surfing

Unprotected surfing in cold water will probably make you deaf.  When your ear canal is exposed to cold water it causes the bone to grow and closes your ear canal.  The growth is irreversible and will not improve without surgery.  This bone growth is called Surfer’s Ear.


Cold water in your ear canal causes irregular bony growths inside your ear called exstoses.  As the ear canal closes you begin experiencing the following symptoms:

  • Reduced hearing until complete loss of hearing
  • Water stuck in your ears
  • Debris stuck in your ears
  • Ear infections  more often
  • More serious ear infections

These symptoms develop slowly over years.  The blockage and symptoms only get worse over time and require surgery to fix.

Diagram of clear ear canal vs surfer’s ear

Cross-section of normal ear and Surfer’s Ear (Photo:

Clear ear canal vs surfer’s ear

Left, a healthy eardrum. At right, an eardrum with Surfer’s Ear (Photo:


Surfers ear is caused by cold water and time.  The more time you are exposed to cold water the more bone grows.  The colder the water in your ear, the faster bone grows.  River surfers who surf in below freezing temperatures are at particular risk.  If your river has ice in it you are surfing the coldest water possible, colder than most oceans, which means you will lose hearing faster.

A Japanese Study of Surfers Ear in Professional & Amateur Surfer
See pictures of surfer’s ear and overview of a study on Surfer’s Ear.


The ear canal is cleared by surgery.  Typically either a small drill or chisel is used to remove the bone growths.  The drill or chisel either enters through the ear canal or the ear is cut open from behind.  After surgery, if you surf to soon you risk infections and other problems.  Typically it takes a couple of weeks to months to recover depending on the surgery and the surfer.

UCIrvine video of surgery to remove surfer’s ear


Wear ear plugs and a hood in cold water.  Wearing both ear plugs and a hood can completely stop or at least dramatically slow surfer’s ear.

Example of moldable ear plugs that shape to your ear

Moldable Silicone Putty Earplugs

Example of pre-shaped ear plugs

Ear Seals Ear Plugs

You can also get custom made ear plugs with help from an audiologist or a hear aid dispenser.

This article was written by Neil Egsgard, ARSA President.
Alberta River Surfing Association —
Surf Anywhere Project —

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Neil Egsgard

Neil Egsgard is the president of the Alberta River Surfing Association (ARSA) and leader of the Surf Anywhere Project -- a project to share wave building details and knowledge so waves can be built everywhere. He loves river surfing, believes surfing can be anywhere, built in 2009 to share and record the sport and since 2005 has surfed river waves from big to small all over Western Canada and the northwest United States.

  • Arielle

    I had no idea this happened, thank you for the information. I will pass it on to all my surfing friends/family.

    • Riverbreak Magazine

      Fantastic! We hope this article will help building awareness on protecting your and the hearing of many other river surfers when shredding in cold water.

  • sky76

    Finally I took the time to read this article – wonderfully written! A great contribution to (river) surfing knowledge.

    • Guest

      Danke sehr, Bernard.

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