When people talk about rugby, they often end up discussing the “cauliflower ears” which a lot of seasoned players end up with. But what is a “cauliflower ear”, why do rugby players tend to get them more often than those who don’t play the sport, and is there anything that can be done about them? Below you will find a brief guide to cauliflower ears.

What is a cauliflower ear?

Cauliflower ear is an informal name which is given to a deformity of the ear which can be caused by injury or infection of the external part of the ear. Following repeated blunt trauma injuries to the ear, the external portion of the ear can develop a lumpy, swollen appearance, which some people think resembles the appearance of a cauliflower. In most cases, the only negative consequence of the condition is the disfigured appearance, although in some cases further problems can result.

If you think that your cauliflower ear is contributing to other health problems, contact a healthcare professional.

Why do rugby players get cauliflower ears?

Rugby players often get cauliflower ears as a result of rough physicality which is common as part of the sport. Blunt trauma to the ear, such as a knock which can easily occur in scrum conditions, can cause internal bleeding, leading to blood clots appearing in the external part of the ear. Pulling and bending injuries, which may also occur as part of the game play may have the same affect.

In some cases, these little clots can block the flow of fresh blood (and therefore vital nutrients) to the affected part of the ear. Stopping blood from reaching any part of the body is harmful and may cause tissue death. In the case of blood clots in the ear, damaged cartilage and nearby tissue may die. This can cause shrinkage and may cause areas of the ear to begin to fold in on themselves. In some circumstances, scar tissue will form in the affected area, and this can be harder and appear more swollen than previous tissue. This helps to contribute to the lumpy, swollen appearance of the ear.

How can rugby players prevent cauliflower ears?

There are two options for players who are trying to prevent cauliflower ears; prevent the initial injury or treat the injury to reduce the likelihood of the tissue death. The rugby players who are most susceptible to ear injuries are now encouraged to wear protective caps, known as scrum caps. These caps help the player to avoid bending or tear injuries. They also include a thin layer of foam over the ears, to lessen the impact from blunt trauma injuries such as knocks or knees to the ear. These caps should be tight enough that they do not slip or fall off during play, but they also need to be loose enough that they do put too much pressure on the ear. A very tight scrum cap can cause its own problems to the ear, including actually encouraging the formation of cauliflower ears.

In terms of reducing the impact of an injury once it has been sustained it is important to receive prompt treatment. By making a small incision near the damaged area, a doctor can clear out accumulated blood to prevent larger clots from forming and blocking the flow of fresh blood. If this treatment is administered, it is important to continue to keep the site of the incision clean, or infections may occur. If an infection occurs at the site or the incision, it can affect the entire external portion of the ear, and it can be very painful.

Is it possible to treat existing cauliflower ears?

In most cases, once a cauliflower ear has formed the effects will be permanent, however if the effects are mild, they may become less visible over time, as the appearance of the ear changes with age. There is no standard medical treatment which is effective at treating this problem once scar tissue has formed. Some sufferers choose to have cosmetic surgery to lessen the deformed appearance of the ear, however this treatment must normally be obtained privately, unless the deformity is causing other health issues, such as hearing problems.