But oral piercing and tongue jewelry place athletes at risk for serious medical and dental consequences, according to the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD), an organization of general dentists dedicated to continuing dental education.
"For years, we have been urging athletes to wear mouthguards when they are playing," says AGD spokesperson Bruce DeGinder, DDS, MAGD. "Now we have to tell them to take the barbell out of their tongues."
According to an article in the March/April 2002 issue of General Dentistry, the Academy's peer-reviewed, clinical journal, one out of every five oral piercings results in infection from contaminated puncture wounds. Athletes are more likely than most people to develop infections because the increased blood flow and breathing rate involved in vigorous exercise, as well as the increased chance of bleeding from a contact injury, can spread infection more quickly.
And the dangers don't stop with infection. In a survey, 24 percent of pediatric dentists reported that they had treated patients with complications resulting from oral piercing. Common problems include bleeding, airway restriction and chemical burns from the use of postpiercing care products. After the piercing is healed, damage to teeth and gums is common.
Suzann P. McGeary, DDS, lead author of the report, says the risks are even higher for athletes. "The athlete who participates in contact sports may be particularly susceptible to airway restriction because an impact may dislodge the tongue jewelry, which could be inhaled. It also could be swallowed, which could cause injury to the gastrointestinal tract."
Damage to teeth by tongue jewelry is another danger intensified by participating in contact sports. "We have seen so many cracks and fractures in teeth caused by clicking, tapping or rubbing the jewelry on them that it has gotten its own name – the wrecking ball fracture," says Dr. DeGinder. "The danger of this is much higher on the playing field." According to Dr. McGeary, the jewelry can also injure the gums and other soft tissue, as well as interfere with proper salivary functioning, conditions that decrease the body's defenses against infection and disease.
Dr. DeGinder's first suggestion regarding oral piercing is, "Don't do it."
Mixing tongue jewelry and a mouthguard is a particularly bad combination, says Dr. McGeary. "The jewelry may interfere with the mouthguard and cause increased salivary flow and gagging or inhibit breathing or speech."
"Remove the tongue jewelry – not the mouthguard," says Dr. McGeary.
Reviewed: January 2012