Trendy Ear Piercings May Come at an Unexpected Cost
If you’ve ever seen an earlobe piercing with an enlarged opening and a large silver hoop lining the inside of that opening, then you’ve seen the trendy piercing known as a "flesh tunnel." Though flesh tunnels are becoming increasingly popular today, they date back to ancient times, where they were used as a sign of wealth and status in tribes throughout Asia and Africa.
Gauging one’s ears is the process of stretching out the lobes to accommodate a flesh tunnel. Gauging works by inserting a wide bar (called a gauge, plug, or spacer) into a piercing to stretch the opening. As the hole in their ear grows, the gauge is replaced with a larger sized gauge, until the desired size is reached. Gauges typically run the range from .8mm to all the way up to 50mm (2 inches), but they can often get much bigger- in fact, he Guinness World Record for the largest piercing is 109mm or 4.3 inches! But while the wearers of these piercings think they look cool now, what happens when they grow tired of wearing them- or they must accept a job that requires the piercings to be removed? While the skin of the ear has some inherent elasticity, there is no way to heal a 2" piercing without intervention. This very dilemma has given rise to a new form of plastic surgery: earlobe reconstruction. We spoke to Henderson, NV plastic surgeon Dr. Ryan Mitchell about what patients can expect from this increasingly popular procedure.
Youth is a time of rebellion, adventure, and figuring out who you are. For many young people, It’s also the first time out on their own, away from the watchful eye of caregivers, and usually without the responsibility of a 9-5 job. It's also the perfect time to do something wild with your appearance, like shave your head, get a tattoo, or yes- stretch your ears out with gauges. But while most of these acts of rebellion are either temporary or at very least, easy to hide, ear gauges are neither- a fact that many young people don’t seem to realize or aren’t bothered by- until it’s too late.
We asked Mitchell if he’s noticed an uptick in patients requesting earlobe reconstruction surgery. "Yes, absolutely," he says "Many patients who seek this surgery were surprised to discover just how little their ears closed up without intervention. Unfortunately, I think many of the people getting gauges are either misinformed, or they just don’t think far enough into the future." After all, circumstances change, and life has a way of throwing a monkey wrench into your plans. Mitchell says patients have cited everything from new jobs, to change of style, to even just frustration with the piercings getting in the way of daily life as reasons for wanting to surgically correct their earlobes. "Inconvenience can be a major factor," he explains "You may not realize how often your hands, phone, or clothing touch your ears each day."
So, what does earlobe reconstruction entail? The procedure, which can run anywhere from $1700 to around $3200 is usually not covered by insurance, as the earlobe is not considered a functional body part. As for the surgery itself, "it’s actually a very simple, in-office procedure," says Mitchell. In fact, even the most severely damaged lobes only take about 45 minutes to correct- all under local anesthesia. While techniques may differ depending on the surgeon (some surgeons will freeze the excess skin) Mitchell’s procedure cuts away the damaged skin surrounding the piercing removing the excess tissue and suturing the earlobe back together. From there, Mitchell says the sutures must remain for about a week, but with a high success rate, the results are usually beautiful, natural-looking earlobes. Though there are some instances of scarring associated with this procedure, Mitchell says most patients are satisfied with the outcome. As for those patients who still want to wear earrings, many reconstructed lobes can support small, traditional sized piercings again after the earlobes have healed completely. For those rare patients who decide later that they miss their gauges, Mitchell offers this advice: "Don’t do it. Even if you’re sure you’ll want the piercing forever, the skin on a reconstructed earlobe will not have the same elasticity as it did the first time around- which increases your risk of tearing the earlobes, and requiring an entirely different kind of reconstruction."