Miyazaki physician works to develop standard treatment for little-understood ailment

Doctor campaigns to raise awareness about surfer’s ear disease


A Japanese doctor is working on raising public awareness of the disease called surfer’s ear, an ailment that has become more common amid a surfing boom in recent years.

It is characterized by the abnormal growth of a bone that clogs the ear canal as a result of the ear being exposed to cold water and wind for long periods.

As the condition advances, it leads to chronic pain and hearing impairment.

Haruka Nakanishi, a specialist at the University of Miyazaki’s Faculty of Medicine, says that while it was common among professional divers, research into the disease only started fairly recently, after surfers outside Japan began developing it in the 1970s.

Since surfer’s ear is relatively obscure here, standards on how to operate tend to vary from one hospital to another, said Nakanishi, 36. He is currently working with specialists abroad to develop treatment for the disease.

In 2011 and 2012, he attended academic conferences in Fiji and Hawaii and made a presentation at last year’s meeting of the Triological Society — a gathering of ear, nose and throat experts — in California.

Over a three-year period from 2007, Nakanishi examined the ears of 373 surfers who attended five surfing events in Miyazaki Prefecture, finding the disease in varying stages of progression in 223 of them, 157 of whom were amateur surfers.

Nakanishi says most patients in the early stage have no complaints. But when ear bones grow and block their ear canals, it becomes difficult to extract water or wax and their ears start to become inflamed. The bones that have become abnormally large don’t shrink to their original sizes.

Mysteries abound about the disease since it is not yet known why the bone starts to grow. There are longtime surfers who never suffer such symptoms. But on the other hand, some divers, canoeists and sauna lovers who bathe in cold water have also developed surfer’s ear.

One of Nakanishi’s former patients is Duncan Butland, a 42-year-old New Zealander who teaches English in Miyazaki who is also an avid surfer.

Butland began having difficulty getting rid of water that got inside his ears about 10 years ago. Since then, he has repeatedly suffered from ear canal inflammation, making it difficult for him to understand what his students say. The pain, hearing impairment and the stress that came with it combined to seriously affect his work and private life.

In 2009, he was diagnosed by Nakanishi with a serious case of surfer’s ear. Both of his ear bones were so large that his ear drums were hardly visible from outside.

After Nakanishi operated on Butland, he was released from a hospital days later and was able to resume his much-loved pastime within several weeks, as long as he wore earplugs. Butland never developed surfer’s ear again.

Nakanishi, himself a surfer, set up a website to raise awareness of the disease, urging marine sports lovers to wear earplugs especially when it is cold.

The website is available also in English at haruent2000.wix.com/surfersear#!

  • Michael Childress

    not really a bone and known for years as occurring among cold water swimmers