I have recently come back from a month on the Ottawa river where I was unfortunate enough to blow my eardrum on the first day. I’m going to explain how I burst my eardrum, ways to avoid doing the same thing and how I coped with the issue while minimising my days off the water; custom ear plugs allowed me to keep kayaking with a perforated eardrum so I’m also going to compare my previous off-the-shelf plugs with the new medical-grade versions that I was issued from the local ear specialist based in Pembroke (Canada).
So how did I burst my (right) eardrum in the first place? Those familiar with the Ottawa river know Butcher’s knife, which is the first rapid below Pushbutton. During August which is when I was there the eddyline is perfect for stern squirts and forms fun-size whirlpools to play about in. Myself and some friends where jumping into these whirlpools from the side (of course with full safety gear on) and getting downtime ranging from a mere 5 seconds all the way up to 30 or 40 seconds on a lucky (or unlucky) ride. I’d already jumped in twice and been pretty unsuccessful at staying under so I decided to have a third attempt; on this third attempt, for whatever reason I went much deeper than any of the others much faster than I expected. I panicked pretty much immediately because my ears hadn’t re-pressurised like the previous times and everything was pitch black and silent. I couldn’t see the light from the surface and it made me feel disorientated. I was wearing a Peak UK slalom PFD which perhaps didn’t have the buoyancy I wanted right at that moment but I hoped it would float me up in the right direction. My breath was running out when I saw light above me and I suddenly realised just how dizzy I was now that I could see properly. It took what seemed like forever to reach the surface and grab breath but apparently I was only under for around 20-30 seconds – I think the fact that I panicked and tried to swim up made me lose my breath much faster than normal. When I finally surfaced everyone was cheering but when I tried to swim to the bank my head felt floaty and I was super uncoordinated. I grabbed onto a boat and was deposited on the bank where people asked if I was OK, by this point my ears still hadn’t popped but the dizziness was going away and I felt my adrenaline surging. Fast forward 3 hours to when I’m having supper (it had been decided my ears would pop sometime this evening and otherwise I was fine) my left ear had popped but my right ear had started to hurt a lot more for which I’d taken painkillers. Then it felt like my right ear popped. I heard a strange hissing sound and the pain disappeared. It was then that I noticed the watery blood leaking out of my ear onto my shoulder and I knew something had gone wrong.
Given that it was quite late, my ear had stopped hurting and for the moment stopped bleeding (around 8pm) I didn’t go to the local doctors until the next morning. She immediately told me I had burst my eardrum, I couldn’t go kayaking until I had watertight ear plugs and that I had to take anti-bacterial ear drops for a couple of weeks. This was bummer as it was the first day of my 4 week trip. We set about getting proper ear plugs the next day and I had to travel to an ear specialist based in Pembroke which was about a 45 min drive away. She was friendly, also kayaked and made me an instant set of ear plugs out of setting silicon putty. These looked a bit like surf plugs and I only missed 2 days off the water so I was back again on Thursday. After a great couple of days I had to go for a check up where I was told my new custom ear plugs weren’t good enough (they were letting water in) and I had to miss another 2 days off the water while they were being improved. After that I had no problems with my ear for the rest of my trip, my hearing was almost the same as normal and I continued to wear the earplugs and use the ear drops every day. It’s been 6 weeks now since the incident and I’ve just had my final checkup. My ear has healed completely and I have no hearing issues (ringing, deafness etc) meaning that I can continue kayaking as normal. From now on I’m going to use my ear plugs whenever I kayak to prevent surfer’s ear – I know of at least 3 people who had to have surgery because of it. If I had had a set of proper ear plugs I needn’t have missed more than a single day off the water and while they might not have prevented me bursting my ear drum they would have protected my ear from infection afterwards without the need for an ear specialist.
How could I have avoided bursting my ear drum? Well the first obvious answer is to not have swum in the whirlpools… in fact anything (like cliff jumping) that might theoretically involve going very deep very quickly. For those of us – including me – who would like to continue doing stupid stuff on the river that doesn’t solve the problem. The only advice I can give you other than that is to pressurise your ears during your downtime. It’s simple to do, the same thing you’d do on a plane to pop your ears; simply pinch your nose and gently push out with your chest when your ears start to feel uncomfortable due to the pressure. I sometimes have issues doing this when I have a blocked nose but it might have prevented me from blowing my ear drum and it’s something to bear in mind whatever you’re doing.
Finally, are my custom ear plugs better than my off-the-shelf “Macks swimmers ear plugs?” The answer is simple – yes! Off-the-shelf ear plugs will never be watertight, however my current custom ear plugs where only temporary so I intend to order a set of “Surfplugs” which some of my friends use (seeing as it is exactly the same thing just kayaking specific). They are quite expensive but 100% worth it, anyone who kayaks a lot in either hot or cold water is at risk of getting surfer’s ear and certainly painful ear infections. Both of the above are worth avoiding and I notice that no one worries about it until it happens to them… then they buy ear plugs. You should do the same.