Safety and efficacy of medically performed tongue piercing in people with tetraplegia for use with tongue-operated assistive technology

Anne Laumann*, Jaimee Holbrook, Julia Minocha, Diane Rowles, Beatrice Nardone, Dennis West, Jeonghee Kim, Joy Bruce, Elliot Roth, Maysam Ghovanloo

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Background: Individuals with high-level spinal cord injuries need effective ways to perform activities. Objectives: To develop and test a medically supervised tongue-piercing protocol and the wearing of a magnet-containing tongue barbell for use with the Tongue Drive System (TDS) in persons with tetraplegia. Methods: Volunteers with tetraplegia underwent initial screening sessions using a magnet glued on the tongue to activate and use the TDS. This was followed by tongue piercing, insertion of a standard barbell, a 4-week healing period, and an exchange of the standard barbell for a magnet-containing barbell. This was then used twice weekly for 6 to 8 weeks to perform computer tasks, drive a powered wheelchair, accomplish in-chair weight shifts, and dial a phone. Symptoms of intraoral dysfunction, change in tongue size following piercing, and subjective assessment of receiving and wearing a magnet-containing tongue barbell and its usability with the TDS were evaluated. Results: Twenty-one volunteers underwent initial trial sessions. Thirteen had their tongues pierced. One individual's barbell dislodged during healing resulting in tongue-tract closure. Twelve had the barbell exchanged for a magnet-containing barbell. One subject withdrew for unrelated issues. Eleven completed the TDS testing sessions and were able to complete the assigned tasks. No serious adverse events occurred related to wearing or using a tongue barbell to operate the TDS. Conclusions: Using careful selection criteria and a medically supervised piercing protocol, no excess risk was associated with tongue piercing and wearing a tongue barbell in people with tetraplegia. Participants were able to operate the TDS.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)61-76
Number of pages16
JournalTopics in spinal cord injury rehabilitation
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2015


  • assistive technology
  • plethysmography
  • spinal cord injury
  • tetraplegia
  • tongue drive system
  • tongue piercing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology
  • Rehabilitation
  • Physical Therapy, Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation


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