The beach at Point Loma’s Sunset Cliffs is a hot spot for PLNU surfers. But sharks are not the only dangers they encounter. Nor are they the most common. Pterygium, or “Surfer’s Eye,” and Exostosis, or “Surfer’s Ear,” are two of the most severe health concerns regarding surfing.
Pterygium, according to WebMD, is caused by extensive exposure to the sun without proper eye protection. Over time, a pink, triangular-shaped layer of skin (the terygium) will start to grow over the eye and toward the pupil. It is the body’s attempt to protect the eye. This does much more harm than good. Not only does the pterygium cause discomfort and severe redness for the eye, but if the skin reaches the pupil, the individual will go blind. Anyone spending large amount of time outside without eye protection is at risk, but the condition is most common among surfers, hence the name “Surfers Eye.”
Surfing expert Jay DiMartino, in his recent About Sports article, “Surfer’s Eye: Pterygium Treatment and Removal,” says that there is no cure for this condition. “Doctors usually advise patients to simply ‘deal with it,’ since there is no immediate danger to your vision until the tissue grows very close to or over the pupil,” says DiMartino. “At that point, surgery is the only option.” Or is it?
A 61-year-old surfer in Hawaii decided to take his Surfer’s Eye into his own hands. Rather than deal with a painful surgery, the surfer stuck his head into the rushing waters of Waimea Bay while surfing a 30-foot wave at top speed and the water ripped off the pterygium, according to Fox News. Though the surfer’s eye was “inflamed for several days” after the salty-surgery, his vision was reported to have ultimately improved.
Exostosis, on the other hand, cannot be cured by rushing water. In fact, that is its cause. Surfer’s Ear, according to Surfline, is caused by regular exposure to cold water running into the ear. After a few years, bone growths take place inside the ear, blocking the canal. This, like Surfer’s Eye, is the body’s attempt at self-protection. These growths will lead to increased hearing loss if not handled by surgery.
“The best waves generally occur in winter,” says surfer Jason Borte in Surfline. “Anything short of hypothermia or rigor mortis is just part of the experience.”
Since it takes a few years to develop, Surfer’s Ear is more common among older surfers, but that is no guarantee for a younger surfer. “After surfing, you are supposed to rinse out your ears to get junk out of them,” says Point Loma Nazarene student and surfer Jayme O’Hanlon. “Surfers who fail to do this over a long period of time will most likely develop Surfer’s Ear.” O’Hanlon also says surfing in dirty water or after a rainstorm can accelerate Surfers Ear and put young surfers at high risk.
There are easy ways to prevent both Surfer’s Ear and Surfer’s Eye, such as wearing goggle sunglasses and ear plugs while surfing. Though these are simple methods, surfers still resist taking the necessary precautions. “Wearing the goggles hinders our peripheral view and the earplugs make it harder to hear a wave,” says Carissa Chu, a student and surfer at PLNU. “Being able to hear and see normally and fully is really important in surfing. The less obstacles the better.”
Despite the risk of potential blindness and bones growing inside their ears, surfers continue to treat these health hazards as the sharks swimming beneath them — just part of the sport. “As a group, surfers are irrationally pigheaded when it comes to weighing potential dangers of their beloved sport,” says Borte. “Like tennis elbow or truck driver’s butt, it’s an occupational hazard, a small price to pay for the best surf.”