What is cauliflower ear?
Cauliflower ear (boxer’s ear, wrestler’s ear) is an acquired deformity of the outer ear. It is usually due to blunt trauma to the ear. When the cartilage of the ear is injured by trauma or inflammation, the blood supply from the skin is disrupted, often forming a large pocket of blood, called a hematoma. As the injury to the ear heals it can shrivel up and fold in on itself and appear pale, giving it a cauliflower-like appearance, hence the term cauliflower ear. Wrestlers, boxers, and martial artists in particular are susceptible to this type of injury.
Causes of Cauliflower Ear
The most common cause of cauliflower ear is a hit to the ear — or repeated hits to the ear — that leads to hematomas, or small collections of blood that clot and block the flow of blood and nutrients. These can also occur when skin is pulled away from cartilage, the semi-rigid tissue that gives the ear its shape.
Usually, cauliflower ear is related to sports injuries, but not always. Any trauma to the ear can cause it. Cauliflower ear can even be the result of an infection in the ear lobe.
When blood flow is blocked, the affected cartilage may die and, without the supportive tissue, fold in on itself. Scar tissue may form, contributing to a swollen and deformed look. Over time, the effects may become more prominent, and they may be permanent. The good news is that cauliflower ear can usually be prevented, even after such an injury occurs.
Risk Factors for Cauliflower Ear
Cauliflower ear occurs most frequently in people who participate in close-contact sports, such as wrestling or boxing. In wrestling, for instance, trauma can result from opponents’ heads rubbing or hitting one another during matches or from contact with the wrestling mat. Cauliflower ear is also common among rugby players and people who practice martial arts. People who participate in these activities are at higher risk than others. Protective head gear has long been commonplace in these sports.
But these injuries can also occur in non-athletes. They may be the result of accidents or physical altercations. They also can be a complication of “high” piercings in the upper area of the ear, through the cartilage, if the piercing becomes infected.
Symptoms of Cauliflower Ear
The initial symptoms of the types of injuries that lead to cauliflower ear are similar to the symptoms one might experience from blunt trauma elsewhere in the body. You may have swelling, and the area may be red or bruised. So it’s important not to shrug off such symptoms if you have received a blow, or multiple blows, to the ear. Prompt treatment can prevent the development of cauliflower ear. But it must be performed before the tissue is compromised by lack of blood flow.