Tongue-piercing trend hard to swallow

A glance at the pages of history - and David Beckham's head - will tell you that fashion is seldom related to common sense. That's why the sudden popularity of tongue piercing generally raises little more than mild interest and the occasional wince. So why do some doctors want it outlawed?

Here at Health24 we pride ourselves on sober, well-researched writing, which is why we were a bit mortified at one recent message which suggested our coverage of tongue-piercing was over the top.

Common procedures also leave a wound in the mouth
“I noticed a hefty amount of anti-piercing content on your site. Most of this was geared towards the tongue-piercing and certain death that seems to accompany it. I think it should be pointed out that there are other common procedures that also leave a wound to heal in the mouth.

“Frenulectomies, root canals, palate surgery, etc. all result in healing in the oral cavity. If you are going to try to scare people in to thinking that only tongue piercings can allow bacteria inside them, but no "common" procedure will, I think that is irresponsible.

“It is not a secret that metal in your mouth can cause problems with gums and teeth. Braces and retainers have proven that for decades, but where are your articles on the resulting scar tissue from braces? A little more non-biased research, and maybe some references and you would be doing a better service to the public.”

Body piercing nothing new
Point taken. Along with tattoos and even branding, body piercing has been attributed to a Gen-X neo-tribalism. For thousands of years, tribal customs around the world dictated scarifying the skin or sticking things through your ears, lips and nose.

Fast forward through Mozart's era, when high society wore a lot of face powder and wigs large enough to shelter large families of squirrels. They had stick-on moles too (skin blemishes, not rodents).

On to the '90s, when the body piercing made its reappearance, along with more extreme forms of body decoration such as branding.

Tongue piercing
Piercing of nipples, navels, genitals, eyebrows and noses is popular, and each has risks of its own. But it’s tongue piercing that has many doctors worried. In one survey of general practitioners in the UK, 90 percent had seen the medical complications of piercing. Around a third of people who'd had piercing done suffered complications, usually infection and bleeding.

Because as it gains in popularity, so do the numbers of cases where the procedure has gone wrong. It's the number of cases and the potential for dangerous complications that's led the American Medical Association to regard it as an illegal form of surgery.

Dental procedures such as root canal work don't carry the same dire health warnings as tongue piercing, possibly because the latter is rather more invasive.

It involves inserting a 14-gauge stainless steel needle into your tongue, followed by a barbell (not a fish - that's a barbel), and it resembles the gym weight in shape only, not in size.

The folk that do the piercing offer advice on what type of platinum barbell to use, and warn against silver jewellery.

Why tongue piercing is risky
Why is it risky? The tongue is a big muscle, replete with blood vessels. Even if sterile, disposable needles are used, the possibility exists for infection, hepatitis, tetanus and HIV. Hitting a big blood vessel can cause bleeding aplenty. Doctors have also advised diabetics and haemophiliacs to avoid being pierced because of the hazards of excessive bleeding.

Tongue studs can crack, chip or break teeth. Incorrectly inserted, they can damage the nerves in the tongue, leading to a loss of sensation and taste.

One medical journal warned that “immediate complications include haemorrhage and rapid swelling, which may cause airway compromise. Massive tongue haemorrhage, oedema, endocarditis, abscess formation, tetanus, nerve damage and Ludwig’s angina are all reported complications.

“There is an increased risk of hepatitis (B, C, D, G), HIV, and even syphilis, if there is a failure to implement proper hygiene procedures.

“The metallic ornamentation may cause gingival recession, tooth injury, excessive scarring and hypersensitivity reactions. In the long term there may be difficulty with speech taste and swallowing. There is the constant risk of swallowing or aspirating the jewellery, which may lead to choking.”

These are dire warnings that aren't likely to put off some piercing devotees. Perhaps one of the more convincing arguments against the practice is that it promotes tooth decay. It's very difficult to clean around the stud, which is an ideal meeting place for plaque. 

(William Smook, Health24, updated January 2008)

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