Exostosis/Surfer’s Ear and Kayakers


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What do high-level kayakers Rush Sturges, Tyler Bradt and Peter Csonka have in common (besides the ability to nail a line)?

They’re just three of the elite kayakers who have had to undergo surgery for exostosis, a malady featuring bony growths in the ear canal which block hearing and increase the risk of ear infections.

These three paddlers, as well as many others suffering from the ailment, have been around cold water and wind for years and years, escalating the problem until they just could no longer live with it. 

For those in a similar boat, we interviewed Rush and Peter about their exostosis experiences so you can learn what it’s all about.

Rush’s Brush with Exostois

It has been 12 years since Rush had his surgery done with the chisel method (no cutting behind or in front of the ear) and he says, “it was definitely an experience.”  Rush had this version done after paddling his whole life, growing up on the banks of the CalSalmon River in California. “I had been in the water from a young age, and I never wore ear plugs,” he says. “I think I was 27 when I had the surgery done.” Now Rush uses the stock standard silicone ear plugs you can get at any store. “I always wear a skull cap even in warm water. And the Sweet helmet with the flaps.” These keep more water out for him than the Doc’s ear plugs, but he says they are harder to hear with.

Peter with his recent surgery in recovery

Peter’s Ear Escapade

Peter recently had his ear surgery done due to a complication from exostosis that caused ringing in the ears. Peter was recovering recently from a similar surgery and had only had one ear infection but he was experiencing a ringing noise telling him there was a problem. “I think the bones grew so much that i had only 1 mm of clearage in my right ear and about 1.5 in left. So they had to cut all 3 bones off but the last one was already pushing to the drum, so my drum got a bit broken due this.” Cold water, wind, and long hair are factors, according to Peter, over his 26-year kayaking career. Now he uses special ear plugs that are molded and not very expensive (the same used by many divers).

My Ear Experience

Personally, I was told at the Santa Cruz Surf Kayak Festival in 2008 that I had 95% occlusion (blockage) in each ear canal due by Dr. Scott (the founder of Doc’s Pro Plugs) and I have used his products ever since. My hearing is fine and the progress of the problem has slowed. But I feel like I am biding my time until the surgery.

After some research and personally having my ears checked, the University of Washington Medical center wanted to cut the back of my ears. They wanted to flap my ear forward and use the chisel method as well. I have held off, hoping that there might be a less invasive option in the future. A second opinion suggested a cut in the front of my ears and a similar method to repair them. With some testing, my hearing is fine. I have heard there are some surgeons in Santa Cruz that specialize in this surgery. My boating friend Scott Gerber had his done years ago and still kayaks a ton.

Docs Pro Plugs Vented

Whatever you do, wear ear plugs in cold weather and with cold water. More than 10 years of paddling in Colorado and five years prior of rolling in the Nantahala River have rendered my ears ripe for the surgery. I have worn Doc’s religiously the past 15 years and much of the problem has slowed, except in the ocean my ears get super clogged (when warm water surfing). Keep your ears protected with plugs and be wary of ear infections. Best of luck with your canals!

Nick Hinds
Nick Hindshttps://paddlinglife.com/
Nick Hinds grew up in NC, spending time canoeing and c-1ing around the western part of the state since he was 11 years old. During his 4 years at University of Colorado at Boulder he added whitewater kayaking, so he could earn money teaching at Boulder Outdoor Center. Starting as an intern at Paddler magazine in 2003, Nick began his 20 year career in the Paddlesports Industry. He worked for 4 years with Eugene in Steamboat at Paddler, then 8 years with Canoe & Kayak magazine after moving to Seattle. Spearheading the guidebook for Washington and Oregon, in 2016 he helped publish Paddling Pacific Northwest Whitewater . After 4 years with American Whitewater and 3 with Werner he now handles advertising and marketing partnerships for Paddling Life.


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