So You’re Getting Ear Surgery for Exostosis, Here’s What To Expect

Sunde White illustrates an essay about surfer's ear

Yes, there was bone in my ear canal.

 It’s officially Spring and surf conditions are at their worst, which means it’s ear surgery season for surfers suffering from exostosis or surfer’s ear.   Surfer’s ear is when bone grows in the ear canal to protect the eardrum from exposure to cold water and wind.  The bone can eventually completely block the canal which results in severe hearing loss and chronic earaches.

Two springs 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 not until I got a horrific, earache a few years ago did I realize how bad it could be.   I finally went to the emergency room.   When the 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, you’re ear is 96% blocked.”

He put the image of my ear canal up on the monitor.  Where a smooth tunnel should have been, mine was almost completely filled up with lumps and bumps caused by bone growth completely closing up my ear canal.

“You need surgery this spring.  If you wait any longer the ear canal will be totally blocked and it will be much more dangerous for me to operate because I won’t be able to locate the ear drum and I’ll be more likely to pierce it during surgery.  This is a dangerous surgery.”  He continued. “But because we’re in San Francisco I’m very experienced with it so you don’t have to worry.  I have to let you know though, that there are three things that can go wrong.”  Dr. Gupta went on calmly.  “I can pierce your brain, I can sever your facial nerve and your face will droop forever or I can puncture your ear drum and you’ll lose hearing in that ear forever.  I’ve never had any of these complications.”  He added quickly.

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.   Both were a complete success but they were much harder than I expected.   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 to get Lasix eye surgery, 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.

I’m writing this to let you know this is not true.  The surgery is really long, over four hours.  You wake up feeling like you got hit by a truck.  Your throat is soar from all the tubes so it is painful to talk. Your lungs hurt from the machines taking over your breathing.  Your ear will be stuffed with surgical sponge so you will be deaf in one ear which is disorienting and frustrating.  You will be weak, unable to take full breaths, and you will be too fatigued to take more than a few steps.  Also, like a horror movie,  blood will drain out of your ear randomly.   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 had had before my first surgery.   It describes the day to day of what to expect leading up to the surgery, the recovery and how to prepare.


 1 or 2 months before:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 you haven’t already because of earaches, stop surfing.  The last thing you want to do is get ear surgery while you have a pre-existing infection.  Plus, I just felt like I wanted the least amount of sand and ocean junk in my ear as possible that could cause an infection later.

A couple days before: Shop for groceries!  I didn’t realize how incapacitated I’d be after the first surgery so for my 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 will be sore and raw.

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

2.Popcicles: The best thing you will experience when you come out of your surgical drug stupor in the hospital will be sucking on a delicious popcicle, cooling down your hot and dry mouth. It will be all you want during your first couple of days recovering at home. BTW, do not get the natural pureed fruit popcicles, they will be too acidic, fibrous and may have seeds.

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 and is not acidic at all.

6.Shower Cap: You will eventually want to shower and a shower 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 should keep the water out.

Day of Surgery:

High as a kite!

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 help you.

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

3.Do calming breathing and take the pre surgery drugs they prescribed you before you get to the hospital so you’ll be totally chill. 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 was not 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 and it will be much later than you expected.  Ask for as many Popcicles as you’d like and even if you don’t feel pain yet, ask them to give you a final boost of pain medicine before they disconnect you because it’ll just make your night a lot easier.

That night: Suck down a couple juice boxes 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 and take pills before it gets worse.  Your entire esophagus will be sore from the tubes, just whisper and eat Popcicles and drink your juice boxes.You will have no energy and it will be hard to take a full breath because of the breathing machines in the surgery.  Just 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 will be totally blocked with a dissolveable sponge which will make you feel disoriented and off balance.   Your loved ones will be sick of you asking what?? But just gently remind them that there is surgical sponge jammed in your ear.

*Note: Blood and fluids will immediately start draining out of your ear.  This is totally fine, just keep a cotton ball or tissue gently taped to outside of ear for the next week or so.

Actually totally fine.

Day 2-4: Take it easy, hydrate, monitor your pain, and eat your soft foods.  You will be spaced out as the surgery drugs leave your body.  Exercise is not possible since 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 you will start to be able to take full breaths.  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 green for a while more.  Just keep eating your soft foods and soups.

Day 7: This is a big day!  The day you start putting your ear drops in!  You will have two types of drops,  antibiotic drops and sponge dissolving.  You will 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, 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: First doctor’s visit.  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 4 ½ weeks and I found it felt a bit more raw and sensitive than my first ear and took longer to heal.

Forever: 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 up north, I wear my hood and plugs religiously but for warmer water Dr. Gupta said plugs were fine.  You will also have extra antibiotic drops that you are supposed to put in after each session for a few months.

Good luck and happy surfing!!

San Francisco surfing lol

Do as Jasmine does