Boxers and wrestlers face some pretty obvious occupational hazards. From concussions to hand and wrist strains and fractures, there is always a risk of injury when a fighter steps into the ring to compete or train. One such hazard is what is often referred to as “cauliflower ear.”
Cauliflower ear, also known as wrestler's ear or boxer's ear, is a condition that refers to the resulting appearance of an ear that has suffered blunt trauma to its outer portion.
How does it happen? The outer ear is made up primarily of cartilage. This cartilage receives all its blood supply from the thin layer of skin that covers it. When that cartilage is broken and/or separated from the skin that provides its nutrients, it dies. At that point, the cartilage becomes deformed and may appear shriveled, thickened, folded over and/or swollen. This odd form is often accompanied by a paler, whitened hue due to lack of blood supply.
Treatment of outer ear trauma must be immediate in order to prevent this condition as well as further damage to the ear. The normal course of treatment is antibiotics to prevent infection and a reconnection of cartilage with its essential blood supply. The reconnection may include draining the blood and fluids that build up between the cartilage and skin.
Once the cauliflower ear is established, however, little can be done to salvage the dead cartilage. Plastic surgery can sometimes improve the appearance of the outer ear but a full return to pre-injury appearance is unlikely.
Interestingly, cauliflower ear is not uniformly looked at as unattractive or entirely undesirable by those in the wrestling or boxing fields. In combative, hand-to-hand sports such as these, an individual may see this deformity as a battle scar that further proves his or her merit or strength. In some circles, it is actually referred to as “the purple heart” of wrestling.
Other reasons wrestlers give for not taking the required steps to prevent an ear injury from developing into this permanent deformity are quite simply pain and time. As one can easily imagine, it is painful to have the outer ear drained, through a cut or needle. And while wrestlers and their ilk are not the type to whine about pain, there is a distinction to be made between pain that one gets paid for in the ring and pain that can potentially cost them money. After all, time is money and going through the treatment prescribed often means two to three weeks out of the ring, out of training. It's time many athletes, professional or otherwise, simply can't afford to miss.
Should one wish to avoid such battle scars, there are preventative measures that can all but guarantee the ear's safety. Helmets and other headgear used in wrestling, for example, include ear guards that keep one's auditory center safe and sound. High schools and colleges in the U.S. require that such headgear be worn for all competitions. Rugby players, martial artists and others in high impact sports can use similar gear to prevent this deformity.