Tongue Piercing Is the Latest Rage, But Is it Safe?
National radio commentator Rush Limbaugh was in a tizzy last month after his 16-year-old stepdaughter asked if she could get her tongue pierced."I said the answer is 'no'," a rattled Limbaugh told his listeners. "The tongue is an internal organ. Why would anyone want to pierce an internal organ? It's like piercing your stomach or your eye."Limbaugh added that he didn't even know that tongue piercing existed until his stepdaughter broached the subject.Some parents are hearing the same story, with tongue piercing becoming the latest craze among teenagers."I probably know at least 15 people who've had their tongues pierced," says Melanie Villanueva, owner of Damage, Inc., a clothing boutque in downtown Traverse City, Michigan. "It's really taken off, and a lot of kids are interested."Damage, Inc. sells stainless-steel body jewelry, such as nipple and naval rings, along with the "barbell" pins which are inserted through the tongue and screwed together. Villanueva estimates that three teens ask about tongue piercings each day.Bite Your Tongue"I certainly don't condone it. I think it's a bad idea," says Jeffrey Link, O, DDS, an oral-maxillofacial surgeon from Traverse City, Michigan, whom has seen two patients so far with tongue piercings on unrelated matters.Dr. Link notes that the tongue is a vascular organ, meaning it is filled with blood. Two main arteries conduct blood to either side of the tongue, and there are countless small vessels throughout."Bleeding is a major concern," he says. "If you pierce the tongue in a place where you sever a main vessel, it can result in a very serious problem."He adds that he hasn't heard of anyone whom has been seriously hurt from a piercing, but the potential is there, especially regarding the risk of infection."The mouth is not a very clean place to begin with, and if the piercing is not sterile and the wound site is not kept clean, there's definitely a chance of infection.""If you got an infected tongue and it spread to your head and neck, it could be a life-threatening situation," he adds.Dr. Link also questions the lack of medical training among piercers. "What are their qualifications, and how sterile are their procedures?"Oral-maxillofacial surgeon Carl Madion, G, DDS, MS, has similar concerns, although he notes that onc e the risk of infection is past, the piercing appears to be safe."There's a lot of bacteria in the mouth, but I haven't seen anyone with an infected tongue so far," Dr. Madion says. "Once it's in and there's no sign of infection, you can leave it in there forever, just like an earring, but you never know."He too has seen two patients with tongue piercings on unrelated cases. "It's really a surprise when you see one. I sure don't advocate it by a long shot. But these days, people do whatever they want to."Unregulated PracticeTattoo artist and body piercer Don Caudill says that he too is concerned about the unregulated aspect of piercing. His tattooing practice in Interlochen, northern Michigan, is licensed and regulated by the county health department, but there are no regulations on body piercing."The problem with piercing up here is that it's not a licensed, regulated sport," Caudill says. "So these kids may be getting it done by people who are just be passing through, and who knows what they're into."Caudill has been a body piercer for the past nine years and is expert enough at the practice to give seminars at tattooing and piercing shows. "I just learned it by proxy," he notes. "Someone showed me the way to do it, and I've been at it ever since."As an insider on the practice, he's seen other practitioners with dubious abilities. "When you have something like this done, you want to know that the person doing it is consistently good at it and is going to be around, not leaving tomorrow for Florida."He charges $60 to pierce a tongue. The tongue is clamped and a 14- gauge trocar is shoved through. He then recommends an antiseptic mouthwash and healing procedures. Caudill says it's a quick procedure, and there's no pain, except during the healing process.As for blood vessels, Caudill is careful to avoid them. "There are a couple up there that you surely wouldn't want to nick. You can see them with the naked eye if you lift up your tongue and look underneath.He had his own tongue pierced three years ago and has an 8-gauge pin in it -- about the size of a 16 penny nail. "It takes time to work up to that. You've got to do it gradually."Who Gives a Lick?These concerns may be of little consequence to teens, many of whom have never suffered a serious infection. Most teens the Express talked to have been told that tongue piercing is relatively safe, as long as the needle goes through the middle of the organ where there are fewer blood vessels and nerve endings.If You Can't Lick 'Em, Join 'EmWhy are teens interested in having a rather sizeable trocar rammed through their tongue, not to mention the hassle of healing the wound and keeping the piercing clean?"Who knows how a trend starts?" Villanueva answers. "I think it has a lot to do with the clothing and the music that are popular, and what people are doing in L.A. or New York. Kids see this stuff on TV and they want to try it too."Typically, piercers attend workshops to learn the techniques, and use sterile equipment such as medical trocars and needles. A new, sterile instrument is used on each customer. Some piercing fan have as many as six studs in their tongues.Although she got her own tongue pierced two months ago, Villanueva doesn't recommend it. "I had a bad experience with it," she notes."The piercing didn't hurt, but the swelling did. My tongue took longer to heal than most -- about a week and a half, compared to three or four days for most people. I took it out after awhile, but then I figured I'd gone through the torture, so I might as well keep it."Robert Downes is editor of Northern Express in Traverse City, Michigan.