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Piercings Prone to Problems

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Jan. 11, 2002 -- They say it doesn't hurt much to get a body part pierced. The real pain comes later. College hipsters report plenty of problems with their piercings.

Lester B. Mayers, MD, is team physician for the athletic department of Pace University in Pleasantville, N.Y. During routine physical exams, he noticed that body piercing seemed to be very common. He looked in the medical literature to see what he could learn about it. What did he find? Not much, so he organized a study of his own.

Mayers's research team asked 481 students to fill out a questionnaire, and nearly all of them answered the questions about their body art.

The results: Mayers's first impression was correct. More than half of the students reported body piercings, and nearly one in four said they'd had a tattoo.

Why is this a medical story? The report, published in the January issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings, shows that nearly one in six pierced students reported a medical problem related to their form of self-expression. Problems included bleeding, injury at the piercing site, and bacterial infection. Since many students had more than one decoration, there was less than a one in 10 chance that a particular piercing resulted in a medical problem.

Infections were particularly common for pierced navels. Pierced tongues caused injury in three of 47 students. One in five students with nipple piercings had bleeding or injury.

There were no reports of medical problems from tattoos, but the author reports he did not test for infections like HIV or hepatitis C, which have been linked to tattooing. Interestingly, this form of body decoration was significantly more common among male athletes than among college men who did not participate in team sports.

How scientific is the study? "Our students cannot be presumed to have a high degree of medical sophistication," Mayers and co-authors write. They intend the study to serve only as a starting point for more thorough research into the medical aspects of body art.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD
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