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Tongue Jewelry Chips Away Teeth and Gums

Study finds risk higher for long-term, long-ring wearers

FRIDAY, March 29, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Tongue jewelry may be today's fashion statement, but those wearing it now could end up with dentures down the line.

A new study finds that people who have tongue piercings are more likely to have receding gums and chipped teeth. Moreover, the risk rises the longer a person wears the imbedded piece, according to the study, which appears in the current issue of the Journal of Periodontology.

"What we found was that the longer they had the piercing, the more complications they had," says the study's lead author, Dr. Dimitris Tatakis, who is a professor of periodontology at the College of Dentistry at Ohio State University in Columbus. "The people who had their tongues pierced more than four years really had a lot more complications."

The jewelry that goes in a tongue is all barbell-shaped, consisting of a rod with a ball at both ends. And the piercing itself can lead to a lot of immediate problems, including swelling, pain, difficulty chewing and swallowing, and trouble speaking, according to the study. But, until now, no one had really looked at the long-term implications of wearing jewelry on your tongue.

Tatakis, who was working at Loma Linda University in California at the time of the study, and his colleagues recruited 52 volunteers from tattoo parlors and shopping malls; all had a tongue piercing. Thirty-one of the volunteers were male and the average age of the participants was 22 years old.

The average age for getting a tongue piercing was 19 years old. Forty-two percent of the volunteers had their piercing less than two years; 25 percent had it from two to four years, and 33 percent had it for more than four years.

Almost 20 percent of the group had some gum recession, but that number jumped to 50 percent for those who had worn long barbells (longer than 0.64 inches) for more than two years.

Tatakis says the researchers aren't sure what is causing the recession, but speculates that the longer barbell may scrape up against the gum during talking or eating.

Approximately 20 percent of the entire group had chipped teeth. The number of people with chipped teeth went up as the number of years wearing the tongue piercing increased.

About 30 percent of those who wore short barbells for two to four years had chipped teeth, while about 45 percent who wore the short version for more than four years had chipped teeth. Those with long barbells didn't get chipped teeth until they had been wearing them for more than four years. By then, almost 50 percent had some problems with teeth chipping.

There was no evidence of chipping or receding gums for those who wore tongue piercings less than two years.

Tatakis says it's not clear what the long-term implication of these problems might be because of the variability in dental care and hygiene. But, he says, the areas of the gum that have receded are more vulnerable and eventually could be prone to gingivitis, periodontal disease, and possibly even tooth loss down the road.

"The tongue piercing creates a need for treatment that, more than likely, these people wouldn't have needed," Tatakis adds.

Dr. Robert Eber, a clinical associate professor of periodontology at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry in Ann Arbor, says the study is well done, but has some limitations.

For example, he says the researchers don't give details on the racial makeup of the group, and there was no control group for a comparison.

But, he adds, "This study is a first step that gives us data we haven't had before."

What To Do

If you're going to get a tongue piercing, you may want to consider keeping it in for less than two years because that's when problems really start to appear. "There's a 50-50 chance of chipping or recession if you leave it in for more than four years," cautions Tatakis.

For more information about tongue piercings and how to take care of them, read this information from the Montana Dental Hygienists Association or this from Australia's BodyPiercings.com.

SOURCES: Dimitris Tatakis, D.D.S., Ph.D., professor of periodontology, College of Dentistry, Ohio State University, Columbus; Robert Eber, D.D.S., M.S., clinical associate professor of periodontology, associate chair, department of periodontology, prevention and geriatrics, University of Michigan School of Dentistry, Ann Arbor; March 2002 Journal of Periodontology
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