The term "cauliflower ear" refers to a condition that occurs when the cartilage of the outer ear is severely damaged or dies, causing the skin to swell and form irregular bumps. Cauliflower ear, also known as an auricular hematoma, is most often caused by repeated trauma to the ear, specifically in contact sports like boxing and wrestling. Auricular hematomas can be cured in a short period of time if addressed in the early stages. Without treatment from a physician, the "cauliflower" appearance can become permanent or cause other complications in the ear.
Significant or repeated trauma to the outer ear can cause damage to the surrounding blood vessels, resulting in an internal leakage of blood. The blood may leak into the tissues of the outer ear, or perichondrium, or eventually form clots that deprive the ear cartilage of essential nutrients, says Michael Hawke, M.D., in "Ear Disease: A Clinical Guide." External bleeding also is likely to occur if a cut or abrasion was left by the initial trauma.
Swelling is one of the first symptoms to appear as blood clots form beneath the skin. Individuals with cauliflower ear typically experience redness and pain around the injured skin, and in cases where the area is left untreated, a more serious infection can develop. A continual buildup of blood clots and pus prevents the healthy flow of blood and nutrients to the cartilage. This causes the cartilage to pull away from the skin, resulting in the puffy cauliflower shape, KidsHealth.org states.
Pus buildup between the skin and the cartilage can occur if the ear becomes infected. When cauliflower ear is accompanied by a cut, the swelling may cause the wound to open wider, leading to a leakage of pus from the ear. In many cases, treatment of cauliflower ear includes the drainage of fluid and foreign bodies, according to the Health section of the New York Times.
Foregoing treatment for cauliflower ear increases the risk of developing a permanent deformity. If the blood clots and liquid buildup are not removed, the blocked cartilage will eventually die from lack of nutrients. Dr. Hawke explains that the dead cartilage thickens and hardens into fibrous lumps, losing its natural shape. Once cauliflower ear becomes permanent, it can only be removed through surgical means.
Excessive swelling of the perichondrium can block the ear canal and interfere with hearing, especially if the cauliflower ear becomes permanent. An athletics training newsletter released by the Orthopedic Institute of Sioux Falls, S.D., mentioned that temporary or permanent loss of hearing following the development of cauliflower ear are also signs that a serious infection has spread into the inner ear.