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What is Cauliflower Ear? And Why Do Boxers, Martial Artists and Fighters Suffer From It

Before MMA hopped onto the scene, people feared the largest man in the room. Perhaps they felt the sheer size of the man warranted the assumption that the largest was therefore the most lethal. Today’s astute fight fan has changed this mentality, and no longer should you fear the largest man, but rather, you should fear the man with the most messed up ears. What is still consider grotesque in most circles, is often worn as a badge of pride by many wrestlers, mixed martial artists, jiu jitsu practitioners and boxers. It is often assumed a fighter with ruined ears has shown longevity in their given sport. And while some fighters seem more vulnerable than others (similar to how some people are riddle with cavities, while others have never had one) the method by which we fall victim to cauliflower ear is always the same.

How do we receive cauliflower ear? Whether it’s wrestler shucking off a head throw, a boxer getting struck, or a jiu jitsu gym rat slipping out of a choke, the result is the same. The ear is vulnerable to blunt trauma. When the ear is struck, squished or in any way stressed, a blood clot develops under the skin, or the skin is sheared from the cartilage, the connection of the skin to the cartilage is disrupted, and this causes cauliflower ear.

The cartilage of the ear has no other blood supply except that supplied by the overlying skin. When the skin is pulled from the cartilage, and/or separated from the cartilage by blood (as with accumulated blood from injury or inflammation) or infection, the cartilage is deprived of important nutrients. Ultimately, the cartilage dies and the risk of infection is increased.

Untreated, the ear cartilage begins to contract on itself forming a shriveled up outer ear, known as the cauliflower ear deformity. Once there is cartilage death and scarring (fibrosis), the resulting deformity is generally permanent.

What Can Be Done to Prevent Cauliflower Ear? The NCAA and most high school athletics associations make it mandatory to wear preventative head gear for all wrestlers during competition. In my experience, headgear can be very valuable, but often, headgear does more harm than good. Most of the cauliflower ear I have received in my life was caused from headgear sliding off of my head and smashing my ear in the process. In reality, cauliflower ear is a natural occurrence of wrestling, jiu jitsu and boxing. I’m sure there is not a doctor on the planet who would suggest this, but I found the most effective way to combat permanent disfigurement is to simply drain the ear when infection occurs.

In high school, one of the team mom’s would literally bring syringes to wrestling matches, and we would periodically get our ears “drained” before our matches. This might seem barbaric, but in my opinion it seemed to be the most effective way of combating the problem. If you look at the Alta Wrestling class of 2003-04, I don’t believe a single one of us has any permanent damage from cauliflower ear, despite the fact that the majority of us suffered from it while in season. Special shout out to Mrs. Bigelow!

So, what if you don’t have nurses on hand? Assuming you’re insured, a doctors visit is pretty cheap, and it only takes a moment, and as soon as your ear is drained, your ear becomes immediately less sensitive.

While I hope this article does not steer anyone away from our great sport, the reality is, every sport comes with injuries, and some injuries are more common than others. But what I do know, is if you’ve got cauliflower ear and the other guy doesn’t, you stand a pretty good chance of walking away from the bar unscathed.

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