What Is a Cauliflower Ear?
Cauliflower Ear is a medical diagnosis involving permanent scarring and damage to the external appearance of the human ear.
Also known as hematoma auris, perichondrial hematoma, and Traumatic auricular hematoma (say those three times fast), this condition is most common among certain types of athletes. Cauliflower Ear can be seen in the facial structures of wrestlers, boxers, rugby players, and a few other athletes whose ears are exposed to damage.
What does Cauliflower Ear look like?
Let’s just say the name of the condition is quite descriptive. Cauliflower Ear makes the human ear resemble nothing if not a cauliflower. When a patient has Cauliflower Ear, one or both of their ears shrivels up and begins to fold in on itself. Combine that with a pale appearance to the skin, and you’ve got the origin of the term “Cauliflower Ear”.
Why do wrestlers get Cauliflower Ear?
Though wrestlers are most susceptible to this condition, athletes of all varieties have to deal with this condition. Why? Any time the human ear takes a direct hit, there is the possibility of a small blood clot developing underneath the skin. These blood clots are called hematomas, hence the complex scientific names for this condition. When that blood clot begins to grow, the skin of the ear pulls away from the cartilage. This disconnects skin from cartilage, causing an extreme reduction in blood flow to the ear.
The ear has been shown to be one of the most vulnerable parts of our body, especially when it comes to blunt force trauma. Wrestlers’ ears are constant targets, and even when a wrestler isn’t intentionally hurting another wrestler’s ear, the ear is fixed to the head in such a way that it is even more vulnerable to accidental trauma.
Why does Cauliflower Ear happen?
The cartilage of the ear is only connected to blood through the skin that is attached to it. Without the connection between skin and cartilage, the cartilage itself is starved of blood. Accumulated, localized swellings of blood can cause infection and swelling, further starving the ear cartilage of nutrition. This causes death of the cartilage, and occasionally further infections. When left untreated, these hematomas and small infections cause the dying cartilage to pull away from the skin and fold over on itself, forming a shriveled looking outer ear deformity.
What happens to untreated Cauliflower Ear?
When the cartilage of the ear dies, there is scarring. The deformity that results from this scarring is nearly impossible to “fix”, at least from a cosmetic perspective. The loss of blood supply causes the skin of the ear to appear pale — hence the white appearance of the Cauliflower Ear. Some patients have reported luck with cosmetic procedures (if they catch the condition early enough), but far too often there is nothing that can be done to correct Cauliflower Ear.
Is there any treatment for Cauliflower Ear?
As already reported, in some cases a simple cosmetic surgery has been used to halt the spread of deformity or even to undo it altogether. Unfortunately, our ears are very vulnerable to infection. If a hematoma has developed as a result of ear injury, the hematoma itself must be treated, even in cases where the patient doesn’t care about the appearance of his ears. Lots of things can happen if these blood clots are left untreated — the ear drum can get infected and rupture, and you can even have some hearing loss from the effects of Cauliflower Ear. How is it treated?
Treatment for Cauliflower Ear complications includes the draining of blood from any hematomas, antibiotic treatment to take care of infections, and surgery to connect the skin to the dying cartilage underneath. This three step process can put an end to Cauliflower Ear symptoms, but may not return the ear to a normal appearance.
The treatment itself almost always takes the form of a small incision, compression, and antibiotic medication.
How likely is deformity from Cauliflower Ear?
When a doctor gets the chance to treat Cauliflower Ear before it gets too bad, permanent deformity is far less likely today than it was twenty years ago. The problem is that most cases of Cauliflower Ear don’t present until they’re too far gone to fix. A delay of even a few days between injury and diagnosis causes difficulties for patient and doctor — the longer a patient waits to have treatment, the more likely permanent disfigurement becomes. Insufficient blood flow to the cartilage in our ears can cause permanent damage in a matter of days.
Is Cauliflower Ear preventable?
Since many wrestling and other sports teams now require protective headgear or even helmets, cases of Cauliflower Ear are less common today. Proper use of safety equipment, and regular visits to the doctor post ear-trauma, mean that Cauliflower Ear is certainly preventable.
The best way to handle a potential case of Cauliflower Ear is to see a doctor or (even better) an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist if you suspect your ear has been damaged.