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The structure and shape of the outer ear is not derived from internal bone structure but from ear cartilage. This makes the ear a cartilaginous structure as it is given its shape by the cartilage. Elastic or yellow cartilage found in the outer ear is also found in the larynx and epiglottis. This cartilage contains elastic fiber networks and collagen fibers. It is surrounded by the perichondrium, which supplies nutrients to the cartilage.
An injury that separates the perichondrium from the ear cartilage is known as cauliflower ear. Wrestlers, fighters and rugby players are most susceptible to this type of injury. A blow to the ear can allow a blood clot or other fluid to collect between the cartilage and the perichondrium, depriving the cartilage of necessary nutrients. If the cartilage dies, fibrous tissue forms in the overlying skin. This leaves the outer ear looking lumpy and deformed, resembling a cauliflower.
Cartilage does not heal easily or quickly as there is no blood flow within the cartilage. In the case of trauma to the external ear, any fluid needs to be drained to promote healing and allow the perichondrium to nourish the underlying cartilage. In addition to draining the fluid, silicone splints are sometimes applied to both sides of the ear to apply pressure. This pressure keeps fluid from recurring and speeds the healing process. Headgear worn in wrestling, boxing, and rugby is designed to minimize potential ear trauma.
If the ear cartilage is pierced, the healing time can be up to a year. The cartilage piercing instrument traumatizes a localized area of cartilage. Cartilage tissue can become infected and swelling can occur in the area of the piercing. The best defense against infection is proper handling of the area after a cartilage piercing. Keeping the area clean and not touching it are critical for proper healing as cartilage piercings have a much higher infection rate than ear lobe piercings.
In the event that a cartilage piercing displays signs of infection, such as redness, swelling, or oozing, it is important to visit a doctor. The piercing may need to be removed and antibiotics may be necessary to deal with the infection. Even with successful antibiotic treatment, a portion of the cartilage may die. This may result it cauliflower patches on the outer ear.
Not only does cartilage provide structure to the outer ear, it helps keep the shape that captures maximum sound waves. Damage to the cartilage can result in decreased normal hearing. If the shape of the outer ear is compromised, hearing aids will not work as effectively if or when needed. Ear cartilage is a flexible and vital part of a healthy, functioning ear.