What Is Tongue-splitting? Trend Could Have Dangerous Health Risks, Surgeons Warn

Image showing a 25-year-old New York tattoo artist who had his tongue split as a form of body art. Chip East/Reuters

Cosmetic body modifications such as oral piercings and tongue-splitting could lead to serious health complications, surgeons have warned.

Tongue-splitting—where the tongue is cut in half to create a distinctive "forked" effect—for example, carries a number of risks.

"The tongue is the site of several major veins and arteries," the U.K. Royal College of Surgeons and the British Association of Plastic Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons (BAPRAS) said in a statement. "Splitting the tongue can therefore cause considerable bleeding and carries a risk of significant blood loss."

The tongue has a large number of nerves, which, if damaged during a splitting procedure, can greatly impact upon its function. Surgeons say it can potentially affect speech, swallowing, taste or touch within the mouth.

"In addition, nerve damage can result in pain, altered sensation or numbness, which in some cases can be permanent."

Tongue and lip piercings, while much less extreme, also pose a risk, according to the statement.

One of the most common side effects of these procedures is a swollen tongue, which can cause more serious problems if it leads to airways becoming blocked, creating breathing difficulties.

Infections are also a concern, they said. "The mouth is full of many different types of bacteria, meaning that any invasive procedure such as an oral piercing carries a risk of infection when it is performed—a piercing may also become a source of chronic infection if an adequate level of oral health is not maintained afterwards. In extreme cases an oral infection can potentially become life-threatening."

Furthermore, jewelry or studs placed through a piercing can grind or catch against teeth, which causes wear over time and can even lead to fractures. Similarly, frequently playing with the jewelry placed through an oral piercing can lead to gum recession.

The presence of jewelry can also cause lesions to develop in the area around the piercing, known as "tissue hyperplasia."

"In serious cases surgery may be required in order to remove the lesion and the piercing itself," the statement read. "Oral piercings can also make it more difficult to speak and eat while someone adjusts to having a piece of jewelry in their mouth."

The surgeons advise that oral piercings and tongue-splitting should be avoided because they can have "a significant impact on oral health, and in some cases lead to serious adverse consequences".

If someone does have an oral piercing they should visit their dentist on a regular basis, surgeons recommend. It is also important to keep the piercing site and any jewelry clean.