I’ve been writing for Breaking Muscle for about four months now and I can’t believe I haven’t thought to write about it before now. It looks variously like lima beans, embryos, a clenched fist, or ABC (already been chewed) gum. I am surrounded by people who have it. I have panicked when it started to crop up on me. It is called cauliflower ear, and it is a disfigurement of the ears resulting from friction, blows, or other hard contact as might occur in grappling, wrestling, boxing, or rugby. It can also be caused by piercing the upper part of the ear for decorative purposes.
Cauliflower ear occurs when the skin surrounding the ear becomes separated from the underlying cartilage; this can be a byproduct of the sports and activities mentioned above.1 The cartilage in the ear has no blood flow of its own and relies on what the skin provides. When this separation occurs, the blood flow is curtailed, resulting in redness and swelling. If left untreated, the cartilage subsequently dies, hardening and curling in on itself in a way that produces the tell-tale “cauliflower” appearance. This has aesthetic implications, particularly for people in professional contexts, and in severe cases it can also affect hearing, or even the ability to use a cell phone earpiece or earbuds.2
The condition can be prevented through the use of headgear that covers the ear during the offending activity. It can be treated by restoring the blood flow to the affected area through draining any accumulated fluid with a syringe and then applying pressure to prevent the fluid from accumulating again.3 If the ear hardens, plastic surgery may be necessary to restore a normal look.
However, especially given the increase in popularity of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, where cauliflower ear proliferates among practitioners, many male grapplers cultivate “the ear” as a badge of honor and of longevity in the sport. Its appearance is certainly distinctive, and apparently it impresses at least some of the ladies. Few of the female grapplers I know have it; personally, I actively prevent it, though I have a tiny bit of hardness on each ear.
So the next time you see someone with ears that look like mashed Silly Putty, keep in mind that s/he may actively participate in a combat sport. Be friendly—and speak loudly!