A tongue piercing is a body piercing usually done directly through the center of the tongue, and is the most popular piercing site in the western world after the ear and nostril.
There is a history of ritual tongue piercing in both Aztec and Maya cultures, with illustrations of priests piercing their tongue and then either drawing blood from it or passing rough cords, designed to inflict pain, through the hole. There is no evidence of permanent or long term tongue piercing in Aztec culture, however, despite the practice of many other permanent body modifications, it was done to honour the gods.
Piercing the tongue has a long history in religious and performance practices. Mesoamericans such as the Aztecs practiced this as well as other perforations as a part of offerings to their deities. Islamic Fakirs and Sufis from the Middle East, and Asian Spirit Mediums of the Far East practiced tongue piercing as an offering and proof of trance state.
The reason for the central Aboriginal Australian holy man's practice of piercing the tongue was to enable the holy man to "suck with his tongue the magic out of his patient's body". From the turn of the 20th century, Western Carnies borrowed many of their sideshow tricks from fakirs bringing to American and European audiences their first glimpses of tongue piercing.
Permanent or long term piercing of the tongue is part of the resurgence of body piercing in contemporary society. The ready availability of high quality, surgical steel barbell style jewellery is associated with the emergence of this piercing in the 1980s. As with many piercing innovations, the origin of this piercing is associated with Gauntlet, the first professional body piercing studio in the United States, formerly located in Los Angeles, California. Elayne Angel, the first person awarded the Master Piercer's certificate by Jim Ward, body piercing pioneer and founder of Gauntlet, is commonly associated with the promotion and popularity of this piercing. Also note that the tongue piercing is not gender specific, it was not created specifically for just a man or just a woman. Popular names for tongue piercing include tongue ring, a misnomer, as only rarely are rings worn in tongue piercings.
Tongues are pierced with straight barbell style jewelry. Because of the frequent movement of the tongue, jewelry size and comfort is especially important. Barbells that are too thin are prone to migration, causing discomfort and irritation. Tongue piercings can often be easily stretched to accommodate larger jewelry. The initial piercing is often at 14 g (1.6 mm), but to avoid one or two stretching steps it is possible to pierce immediately at 12 g (2.0 mm) or even 10 g (2.4 mm). Some people later choose to stretch their piercing to 12 g (2 mm), 10 g (2.4 mm), 8 g (3.2 mm) or 6 g (4.0 mm) to protect against possible migration and to have a more stable 'snug' fit. It is possible to stretch further to diameters beyond 10 mm. The beads at the end of the barbell can be made of many decorative material. "No-see-um beads", flat beads matching the color of the tongue, are sometimes worn to conceal this piercing, often in places of employment. Using appropriate colored and styled jewelry, and taking care while talking/laughing, it can be possible to conceal the piercing for a long while.
The piercer will check the underside of the tongue for large blood vessels, sometimes with a bright light, and mark a safe placement for the piercing. The tongue is then clamped with forceps and pierced with a needle, usually from top to bottom with a piercing needle or from bottom to top with a cannula needle. Initial jewelry should always be considerably longer than will ultimately be required to allow for swelling, which is common following the piercing. Within two days of getting the piercing the tongue can swell up to double its original size. This can lead to pain when speaking and eating, but this is not permanent. Piercers often recommend drinking cold beverages and sucking on crushed ice to help reduce the swelling. Some people find that taking Ibuprofen or similar anti-inflammatory drugs can greatly reduce the swelling associated with a tongue piercing. It is advisable not to drink alcohol, smoke, or eat spicy food until the piercing is at least partially healed (around two weeks), and alcohol-free mouthwash should be used after eating or smoking.
After the swelling calms down, a period of mild tongue and oral mucosa irritation can follow, sometimes discouraging the recently pierced person to keep the piercing. Appropriate mouth washing, care during meals and some patience will usually be sufficient to come to a sufficiently healed state. After full healing the pierced person is advised to replace the initial long barbell (to accommodate the initial swelling) by a shorter barbell. This second barbell is sometimes included in the price of the initial piercing procedure. It can be difficult for an unexperienced recently pierced person to replace the barbell by a shorter version, so often the help of the piercer is asked for. The second barbell is usually 2 mm – 4 mm shorter than the initial barbell, but should be adapted to the individual anatomy. After this replacement a second (short) healing period is observed. In case of absence of irritation, the further stretching procedure can be started.
Because of the tongue's exceptional healing ability, piercings can close very fast. Even completely healed holes can close up in a matter of hours, and larger-stretched holes can close in just a few days. The length of time for the hole to heal varies greatly from person to person – some people with larger-stretched holes (greater than 4 g (5 mm)) can still fit jewelry (albeit smaller) in their piercing after months or even years. It is generally recommended to avoid piercing in bodies under development or in people not capable of taking care of a recent piercing.
The traditional placement for a tongue piercing is along the midline of the tongue, in the center of the mouth. It is often approximately .76 inches (1.9 cm) or so back from the tip of the tongue. It is placed with the top a little further back than the bottom, which allows the top of the jewelry to lean slightly back, away from the teeth, and toward the higher part of the upper palate where there is more room in the mouth. It is also usually positioned just in front of the attachment of the lingual frenulum.
A tongue frenulum piercing is a piercing through the frenulum underneath the tongue, known as the frenulum linguae, and commonly the tongue web piercing. "Venom Bites" is the term given to two tongue piercings placed side by side on the tongue, which are considered to be more painful than a regular tongue piercing through the tongue's center. Although the term "angel bite" is sometimes referred to as two piercings in the tongue with one placed right in front of another, the term is much more common for two Monroe piercings on either side of the face. There is also the "snake-eyes" which is one curved bar going horizontally through the tip of your tongue, it is mostly painless other than a mild amount of pressure. It is possible to use a (stretched) tongue piercing as a first step to tongue splitting.
According to the International Dental Society (ICA) there is a risk of damage to the teeth but this is minimal and is rare among tongue piercings. A survey was carried out and only 3.2 % of people with this piercing have dental problems. Also there is a slight impact on one's ability to talk for the first couple of days after the procedure, but this is most likely only temporary. Chipped teeth, gum recession and other dental problems can be avoided by a combination of good placement (far backward on the tongue) and by appropriate jewelry (the barbell should be as short as possible after initial healing), and to avoid a barbell that 'wiggles around' and 'cuts' into the tongue. It is possible for a piercing to rapidly stretch to for instance 3.3 mm. During the initial period when the barbell is still long and/or thin, the pierced person should be especially careful while eating.
However, if done improperly and/or on an unsuitable tongue a person can suffer nerve damage (both subtle and extensive, sometimes even severing the nerve within the tongue), inability to swallow or in extreme cases breathing difficulties due to severe swelling of the tongue, paralysis of the tongue muscle, a spreading tingling feeling, numbness and infection. Indeed, the risk of infection never truly goes away, as there have been some cases of a long-term wearer who has had to remove the piercing due to a delayed infection. Another more common risk is the ingestion of dislodged jewelry. Should the piercing come loose, it could be swallowed or choked on.