Kids, Keep Your Tongue In Your Mouth (Where It Belongs)

Originally published on June 24, 2011 5:20 pm

This is a post for all the kids who stick their tongue in places they shouldn't, and the parents who tell them not to.

Late one afternoon last September, an EMT crew delivered a 9-year-old boy to the emergency room at Duke University Hospital in North Carolina. His problem was obvious. His tongue was stuck inside a metal drinking bottle. Really stuck.

The boy was drooling and unable to swallow. He was scared and in pain.

At school a few hours before, he'd pushed his tongue through the bottle's neck and sucked hard, creating a vacuum. Funny, right?

Not so much, actually. His tongue swelled, and he couldn't get it out. Neither could anybody at the school. The bottle wouldn't budge even after the EMTs arrived and drilled holes in it to break the vacuum.

So, it was off to the hospital for the lad. The ER docs took a look and quickly paged the otolaryngology resident on call, Dr. Chad Whited.

After the kid got plenty of pain medicine, the team cut off the bottom of the bottle with a saw used to remove casts. Then, with the tongue exposed, they tried "gentle traction, lubricant, a malleable retractor and a popsicle stick" to loosen it, according to a report about the case in the latest issue of the Archives of Otolaryngology — Head & Neck Surgery. No dice.

Time to cut through the top of the bottle, they decided. After gently snaking a thin metal ribbon between the rim of the bottle and the boy's tongue for protection, they used some disinfected tinsnips from the hospital's engineering department to slice through.

After the doctors got started, it took them about 10 minutes to cut the bottle free. "The patient was really sore but very relieved, as was his mother," Whited tells Shots.

Attending physician Dr. Walter T. Lee, a co-author of the paper describing the case, says he's never seen or heard of anything quite like it in his dozen years of practice. But there are reports in the medical literature of people's tongues getting caught in glass bottles, cans and balloons.

So what should parents do if a kid's tongue gets trapped? "Kids will be kids," Lee, a dad as well as doctor, acknowledged. "The main thing is to trust your parental instinct. You can try to get if off, but if the kid is screaming in pain or is uncooperative there's no shame in showing up at the emergency room."

But don't take too long deciding, Lee says. The big worry about this boy's case was that his tongue would become so swollen it would interfere with his breathing. Happily that didn't happen. The picture below, taken right after the bottle was removed, shows the boy's swollen but liberated tongue.

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