Researchers from London have published results of a survey indicating that about 10% of English adults have had a body piercing somewhere other than their ear lobe. Since 25% of these piercings result in medical complications – with 1% requiring hospital admission – there is concern that piercings create additional burdens for the health services system.

Public health doctors from the Health Protection Agency and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine conducted the study consisting of 10,503 participants aged 16 and over. This is the first time that researchers have published data concerning body piercings and the rate of subsequent medical complications.

Analysis of the data revealed that women are more likely than men to have a body piercing – about 46% of women aged 16 to 24 years reported a body piercing in the survey. The breakdown of piercing location for all survey respondents is as follows:

  • navel – 33%
  • nose – 19%
  • ear – 13%
  • tongue – 9%
  • nipple – 9%
  • eyebrow – 8%
  • lip – 4%
  • genital – 2%

Men and women were also found to prefer different types of piercings: men usually enjoy nipple piercings (and women do not), while women select navel piercings (and men do not). Although genital piercings were very uncommon, men were two times as likely as women to have them.

In addition to having a higher prevalence of piercings, complications from piercings were more likely for the group aged 16 – 24. About 33% of this group reported having problems, and 15.2% decided to seek help from a professional. Though most piercings (80%) were procured in shops that specialize in piercing, the researchers counted a “worrying” 10% of tongue piercings that were not performed by experts. Many respondents indicated that they had pierced themselves or received the piercing from a friend or relative – even in riskier areas such as the tongue and genitals.

Common medical problems included swelling, infection, and bleeding – especially with tongue piercings as about half led to complications. People who received piercings from non-specialists were also more likely to have serious complications.

The researchers conclude that, “Health professionals need to be aware of the potential complications of body piercing and the appropriate management. More research is needed to determine which factors increase the risk of complications so that this information can be used to raise awareness in piercers, their clients, and health services and to improve the safety of body piercing. The researchers say the clear trend in piercing by age group in both sexes confirms that piercing is a fairly recent phenomenon and add, if its popularity continues, it could “place a significant burden on health services for many years.”

Body piercing in England: a survey of piercing at sites other than earlobe
Angie Bone, Fortune Ncube, Tom Nichols, Norman D Noah
BMJ (2008)
Click Here to View Abstract

Written by: Peter M Crosta