Information for Patients: Tongue Piercing

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How piercing lost its cool factor

Five years after Cristina Howorun had her tongue pierced, an infection starting eating away at her gums and teeth
Apr 17, 2007 04:30 AM
Cristina Howorun
Special to the Star

“It’ll feel like a pinch,” the tall muscular man with the shaved head and tattooed neck reassured as he washed his hands in a stainless steel sink.

His clamp-meets-single hole punch tool reflected the beads and rings that hung from his lips, eyebrows and nose.

I nervously opened my mouth, stuck out my tongue and said, “Ah.”

He was right. It felt like my tongue had somehow run into my little sister’s malicious fingers. Within minutes it was just a small sting and my swelling tongue sported a silver, 14-gauge tongue ring.

The pain came nearly five years later.

Like many of my Generation Y cohorts, I fell victim to the trend of self-mutilation. At 16, I got my first non-traditional piercing, a belly button ring. I remember my friend tagging along, holding my hand and cringing when the piercing specialist stuck the gun through my skin. I was hooked.

That summer, I got a tattoo just above my right hip: a small, meaningless pink heart with a purple daisy breaking through.

The next summer, I added another: the Japanese symbol for princess on my lower back. I took a break, and it wasn’t until I hit 21 that I entered the world of tongue jewellery.

Fearing my father’s wrath, I was careful to get the stud about 3 cm away from the tip of my tongue. I was certain he couldn’t see it there, and if he ever did, he never said anything about it.

For safe measure, I got a rubber backing for the bottom of the stub. The tattooed man at the piercing shop assured me that this would prevent any damage to my gums. I was content, and stayed that way for over four years.

Then, last December, what should have been an uneventful trip to the dentist, ended up costing my insurance company $1,400, and me 10 days of anguish. When I opened my mouth, the hygienist was appalled. I had “considerable” gum loss behind one of my teeth; she pegged it at 3-4 mm. The tooth had “mobility” and could eventually fall out, she cautioned. She urged me to remove the stud and visit a periodontist, a gum specialist.

Reluctantly, I removed my mouth jewellery and saw the doctor.

If the hygienist was appalled, the specialist was shocked. The lanky man with thick glasses and a kind smile immediately ordered a tooth-and-gum X-ray. “Are you sure you haven’t been experiencing severe pain in your jaw?” he asked, actually using the word `severe.’

No, I was fine. In disbelief, he reached for the X-rays and pointed at fuzzy white-and-black spots. The doctor pulled out a model of a mouth, and peeled away its rubber gums to reveal teeth roots and bones. My gum loss, he said, was the least of my problems. An infection was spreading across my jaw line, eating away at my bone and teeth.

I was going to need surgery and fast. He would remove my gums, clean out the infection and give me several injections of fetal pig teeth protein. Hopefully, he said while pointing to the bone loss on the X-ray, he could rid my mouth from disease and encourage new growth.

Hopefully?! He wasn’t certain he could get rid of the infection? He hoped this pig stuff would make my bones grow?! He wanted $1,400 and he wasn’t positive this would work. Visions of developing a snout and curly tail danced in my head.

I would need at least seven days to recover. I protested. I couldn’t take that type of time off school. I booked my appointment for late April. It was only two months away, I reassured myself. How bad could it get?

It was just before St. Patrick’s Day when the severe pain took over. My mouth was in anguish. Sharp, fiery pangs shot up my jaw line. I was in constant pain.

I developed a routine. Tylenol 3’s at night and Advil Extra-Strength all day let me get through my classes for just over a week. But it was getting worse.

My doctor saw the mess that was quickly taking over my mouth. The infection was spreading, eating at my jaw; I needed surgery now.

The procedure was fuzzy. I was drugged and frozen, but I’m certain I felt every scrape against my jaw bone. I left with a mouth full of thick black stitches, throbbing gums and a bag of drugs.

The next week was an OxyContin-induced haze. Frozen bags of spinach defrosted on my cheeks. Mountains of pills were ingested each day, applesauce became an entrée and sleeping for 16 hours of 24 was the norm.

I won’t know if the pig protein worked for some time. But the infection that was tearing away at my bones is gone.

I’m no longer in pain and the stitches are gone, although I still can’t use my front teeth, or enjoy a sandwich.

My situation wasn’t unique. Dr. Wayne Karp, a Toronto-area periodontist, says that tongue rings can result in gum and tooth damage. Most often, “it’s gum recession, but it depends on where the stud is, how your tongue hits your gums and how big the piercing is,” he says.

Gum grafts, where a periodontist removes part of a mouth’s roof and transplants the gum to the affected area, are much more common. My situation, “doesn’t happen frequently, but as you know, it does happen,” Karp says.

It turns out that being trendy, can be destructive.

More than 500 bacteria call your mouth home and with more openings for these germs to explore, serious bacterial infections can destroy the supporting bones that hold your teeth in place.

“Contact with the jewellery can cause teeth to crack or chip and your gums to recede,” says Ontario Dental Association spokesperson Dr. Janet Tamo. “Once you start peeling away at your gums, it (the piercing) starts hitting at the bones and teeth. Losing a tooth is a lot easier than you think.”

I look at women on the subway with fried hair from all the perms, crimping and teasing that was popular in the 1980s, and wonder if there are always negative consequences to trends.

Then I eye my meaningless heart/daisy tattoo. Anyone know a good removal specialist?

Cristina Howorun is a Ryerson journalism student.